The 2021-2022 NBA season was a fantastically fun affair, for the most part. We saw huge dunks, insane game-winners, older stars retake their throne, young bucks come into their own, BING-BONGs, huge trades, records broken, inspiring returns, and so much more.
Overall, this season was a rousing success (particularly if you’re a Warriors fan), but it’s already time to start looking ahead. We’re going to go over a reason for optimism for every team over the next week.
Atlanta Hawks – Trae Young is thriving
It was a disappointing season for the Hawks overall after their incredible run to the Eastern Conference Finals the year prior, but Trae Young took yet another leap in 2021-2022. The diminutive point guard made Third-Team All-NBA and set career highs in assists, FG%, 3P%, and FT%. The Hawks also seem set to move John Collins, which should improve locker room chemistry and (hopefully) the on-court product for next season.
Trae Young has his warts defensively, but his long-range sniping and insane passing instincts make him a deadly offensive fulcrum. The Hawks will likely look to add a wing playmaker in any Collins deal to take some of the burden off Young, so we could see an even more well-rounded and dynamic offensive attack next season.
Boston Celtics – They’re ready
We’ve talked a lot about the C’s here recently, so we’ll keep this brief. Boston looked to be a .500 team halfway through last season before they turned into one of the most dominant defensive juggernauts the NBA has ever seen. Although they lost in the Finals to Golden State, most of their core pieces are young and still improving, and they’ll enter next season as a major contender even if they don’t do a single move this offseason. It’s a good time to be a Celtics fan.
Brooklyn Nets – Kyrie’s not coming back
Some fans might not view this as a positive, given Kyrie’s incredible talent, but he’s been a headache for Brooklyn from the get-go. It was less than two months ago that Kyrie incredibly suggested that he wanted a “co-management relationship” with owner Joe Tsai and GM Sean Marks. Apparently, Marks and Tsai decided that this relationship was already toxic enough — Brooklyn reportedly has “hit an impasse” with Kyrie on extension talks..
Kyrie has played in just 103 games out of a possible 226 over the last three seasons due to injuries, a refusal to get vaccinated, and perplexing personal absences, both excused and otherwise. Numerous reports of divisive behavior in the locker room paint the picture of someone who wanted to do things his way — at the expense of team chemistry and winning.
It’s unclear what, if anything, Brooklyn will get back if they’re able to sign-and-trade him, but sometimes addition by subtraction is reward enough.
Charlotte Hornets – LaMelo keeps getting better
There’s a lot of swirl around the Hornets, and they’re widely expected to look fairly different next season. But with LaMelo Ball at the table, fans are guaranteed to always have a great time.
Ball improved across the board from his 2020 Rookie of the Year campaign, and perhaps most importantly, proved that his three-point shot is real. He hit 39% on the season on a strong 7.5 attempts per game. He can still finish better at the rim and improve his defense, but his sensational passing and outside marksmanship make him an easy player to fit into multiple team-building philosophies – an underrated aspect of being a successful star.
The All-Star is thrilling to watch, and if he keeps getting better, it’ll be tough for Charlotte to stay out of the playoffs no matter who they surround Ball with.
Chicago Bulls – This defense was legit…and might receive a massive upgrade
It’s easy to forget, but the Bulls were a surprisingly energetic top-10 defense on Christmas Day. Subsequent injuries to their two best defenders in Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso sent that rank tumbling, but it helped prove the value of having big, savvy defenders on the perimeter.
Now, there’s serious talk that the Bulls might be moving on from Nikola Vucevic, a negative on defense, to Rudy Gobert, a generationally great defender. That seems like it might help a bit.
A team of Ball, Caruso, All-Stars Zach LaVine (assuming he stays) and DeMar DeRozan, and Rudy Gobert would be a two-way force. The East is more competitive than ever these days, but that Chicago starting five has a near-perfect mix of inside-outside defense, perimeter shooting, and passing, and it should get Chicago faithful dreaming of glory days ahead.
Cleveland Cavaliers – The youths will rise
It’s hard not to be excited about the Cavaliers’ trajectory. All-Stars Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen are just 22 and 24, respectively. Evan Mobley is already an All-World defender and was robbed of Rookie of the Year by recency bias. That’s a hell of a core.
Undersized shooting guard Collin Sexton isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he’s 23 with a track record of being an efficient high-volume scorer (although I think the Cavs will trade him within a year). We won’t talk about Caris LeVert, who is a terrible fit on this team, because we’re staying positive today.
The Cavs are still likely two moves away from being championship contenders, but they should be in the thick of the playoff race next season. With Mobley and Garland, especially, it’s dangerous to assume we know their ceilings. I underestimated the Cavaliers badly last season, as they proved to be one of the most exciting teams in the league. I won’t do it again next year.
Dallas Mavericks – They were already great and just got better
Almost everything that happened for Dallas last season was good. Luka Doncic got even better, somehow, and he is now a clear top-five playoff player in the league. Coach Jason Kidd was widely panned as a hire, but he turned the team’s lackluster defense into a shockingly elite unit. Jalen Brunson made a leap and looked like a superb fit next to Doncic. The role players played better than ever.
It’s hard to imagine Dallas getting much more out of their roster than they did, however, and so the Mavs went out and upgraded. They traded end-of-bench players and the 26th overall pick (players picked this late rarely turn into anything) for Christian Wood, a mercurial but talented big man who possesses excellent scoring ability from all three levels.
Wood is capable of both rolling hard and popping out to space the floor (39% from three on five attempts per game last year). He possesses a nice face-up dribble-drive game, as well. He’s better at basically everything on offense than the player he replaces, Dwight Powell, and while he’s never been a very focused defender, he’s shown flashes of being able to contribute on that end. If Kidd can whip him into shape like he did the rest of the roster, this Western Conference Finals team just improved by leaps and bounds.
Denver Nuggets – Jamal Murray and MPJ are back
Sorry to be Captain Obvious here, but this was a lost season for Denver after star guard Murray tore his ACL right before last year’s playoffs. Sweet-shooting forward Michael Porter Jr.’s season-ending back surgery early this year exacerbated matters.
But next year, the Nuggets are ready to come back swinging. With their self-made Big Three healthy, the Nuggets have as fearsome an offense as anyone in the league. Reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokic made strides this year as a defender and continues to be arguably the best offensive player in the NBA, and he is poised to sign the long-term supermax contract keeping him in Denver for the foreseeable future.
Many people thought the Nuggets were going to be the championship favorites last season before Murray’s injury. Next year will be Denver’s time to prove they’re worth the hype.
Detroit Pistons – Cade Cunningham is real
First overall pick Cade Cunningham started cold from the field, but it’s clear that he’s a future All-Star in this league. He was able to get to the bucket, make plays off the dribble, and defend at higher levels than most expected (even if he struggled with his outside shot).
Cade’s size, pace and feel for the game remind me of a poor man’s Luka (that’s a massive compliment, I swear). He’s already fearless, and he’s gotten rave reviews for his performance as a leader in a locker room filled with early-20s peers.
With Detroit’s upcoming high draft pick and a bevy of young talent already on the roster, the arrow is pointing up for the Pistons.
Golden State Warriors – Uh, they just won a championship
Besides the obvious, Golden State fans should be grateful that they have the most competitive owner in the NBA, Joe Lacob. In a league filled with billionaire owners who are still reluctant to spend millions going for championships, Lacob routinely foots the bill on keeping great players and staff together to maximize championship odds.
It’s not a question of “buying” championships, either – don’t forget that Klay, Draymond, Steph, Jordan Poole, and Kevon Looney were all drafted by the Warriors. They made a superteam from the ground up, and they’re one of the only franchises willing to actually keep their core together no matter the cost. It’s nice when the owner cares as much about winning as the fans.
On Friday, we’ll look at the next set of ten teams, so stay tuned!
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