The Lakers and Clippers will be among a large group of Western Conference contenders who will be trying to unseat the NBA champion Denver Nuggets, while it appears the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics are clear favorites in the Eastern Conference.
How will the West shake out?
DW: So the West is loaded. There are the teams like the Phoenix Suns, the Lakers and the Clippers. How about Memphis, who has been a dominant regular-season team and added Marcus Smart (and will get Ja Morant back rested with tons to prove after a 25-game suspension). What about the Golden State Warriors, who added Chris Paul? Then there’s the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have Anthony Edwards ready to make the leap and should benefit from being together another season. But my favorite under-the-radar team is the New Orleans Pelicans, who had the best record in the West last year before Zion Williamson got hurt. He’s due for some better luck, and if he gets it, they’ve got a lot of talent. As far as best shot goes, I’ll say Phoenix. But they’re not lonely out on the hunt.
AG: My instinct, and the input from a few scouts across the league, says Phoenix has the best chance to knock off the Nuggets, although I really don’t know what they will do at center in the postseason — and center, of course, is where Nikola Jokic dominates. The Suns’ potential for scoring is so persuasive as to wave away worries about crunch-time defense for the moment. I don’t discount the Lakers’ chances. As for the Clippers, it’s too hard to project their health or roster by season’s end. I would like to see what a healthy group actually looks like in the postseason. For that matter, so do the Clippers themselves.
BT: This season is no different for the Lakers and Clippers than any other season — their stars must stay healthy for either club to have a shot at winning the NBA championship. The success of the Lakers will come down to the availability of Anthony Davis and LeBron James while the success of the Clippers will come down to the availability of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. But even if that is the case, the Western Conference is as tough as ever and it will be a dogfight to the end. Denver has the best starting five in the NBA, and the Nuggets are the defending NBA champs. The Suns have the best threesome and they have a championship coach in Frank Vogel, who led the Lakers to the title in 2020. Golden State still has the best shooter ever in Stephen Curry and it has Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Chris Paul. The Kings are dangerous, as will be Dallas, New Orleans, Minnesota, Utah and Memphis.
How does the East shape up?
DW: Boston is the best team, on paper, in the NBA. Since we’ve established that, let’s have some fun with this answer. I kind of think Atlanta is set up for a big season. Trae Young has a lot to prove, they’ve got plenty of talent and they added a terrific coach last season in Quin Snyder. With things being unsettled in Philadelphia, I don’t think it’s nuts to push the Hawks significantly up the standings this season. Another under-the-radar team in the East that I really like is Indiana.
AG: We saw Cleveland go for it last season by trading for Donovan Mitchell and the way that paid off in the regular season. New York has draft assets. Could they make a move to move up in the East hierarchy? It does feel, however, that this is a two-team race between the Lillard-Antetokounmpo Bucks and the Tatum-Brown-Holiday Celtics. The wild card is coaching, with two relative newcomers running those benches.
BT: This is really a two-team race between the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics. The Bucks made the first major move by acquiring All-Star guard Damian Lillard from Portland in a deal that sent Jrue Holiday and others to the Trail Blazers. The pairing of Lillard with Giannis Antetokounmpo makes them a lethal duo. The Celtics countered that by getting Holiday from the Trail Blazers. Now the Celtics have Holiday, one of the best two-way guards in the NBA, to go along with star wings in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It’s always hard to count out the Miami Heat with Jimmy Butler and coach Erik Spoelstra. New York, Cleveland and Philadelphia, even with all the James Harden drama, will be solid as long as Joel Embiid plays to an MVP level.
Who makes the postseason in order of finish?
DW: EAST: Boston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Atlanta, New York, Miami, Indiana, Chicago, Toronto, Brooklyn; WEST: Denver, Phoenix, Lakers, Golden State, Clippers, New Orleans, Memphis, Sacramento, Minnesota, Dallas.
AG: EAST: Boston, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Indiana, Atlanta, Toronto, Charlotte; WEST: Phoenix, Denver, Oklahoma City, Lakers, Golden State, Clippers, Sacramento, Memphis, Dallas, New Orleans.
BT: EAST: Boston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, New York, Miami, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Brooklyn, Toronto, Indiana; WEST: Phoenix, Denver, Lakers, Clippers, Golden State, Sacramento, Dallas, Memphis, Minnesota, New Orleans.
Who reaches the conference finals and who wins the title?
DW: Celtics vs. Bucks and Suns vs. Nuggets in conference finals. Celtics over the Suns for title.
AG: Bucks vs. Celtics and Nuggets vs. Warriors in conference finals. Celtics beat the Nuggets for the title.
BT: Celtics vs. Bucks and Lakers vs. Suns in conference finals. Celtics beat the Suns for the title.
Who wins the major awards this season?
DW: MVP: Jayson Tatum; Rookie of the Year: Victor Wembanyama; Coach of the Year: Mike Malone; Defensive Player of the Year: Jrue Holiday; Sixth Man: Josh Hart; Most Improved: Jonathan Kuminga; Executive of the Year: Brad Stevens.
AG: MVP: Giannis Anteokounmpo; Rookie: Victor Wembanyama; Coach: Mark Daigneault; Defensive: Giannis Antetokounmpo; Sixth Man: Norm Powell; Most Improved: Tyrese Maxey; Executive: Jon Horst.
BT: MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo; Rookie: Victor Wembamyama; Coach: Frank Vogel; Defensive: Jrue Holiday; Sixth Man: Malik Monk; Most Improved: Austin Reaves; Executive: Rob Pelinka
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