If the men’s NBA needed a New Year’s Resolution, it would be to stay safe.
The 2021-22 season has been rife with injuries and players entering Covid-19 protocols to the point where around one fifth of the league were restricted from activity in recent weeks due to contracting the virus or interacting with someone who has.
There are a few universal New Year’s Resolutions that are made by millions of people around the world every year. Some of these fall into general themes and similar ideas, but each person will interpret them a little differently.
This is equally true of teams in the NBA, as each of them should take one of these popular New Year’s Resolutions with them into 2022…
Don’t overdo things
In some ways, the problem for the Atlanta Hawks is that they aren’t overdoing things – they have 13 players averaging 10 minutes per game, with Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela, Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish and Danilo Gallinari playing more than 20 minutes a night. What they are overdoing is the amount of players that could play in the final few minutes of the game – as a result, nobody knows who will be in the rotation from one night to the next and their chemistry is way off compared to last season, especially on defense. Hunter has missed several games, and being the best defender of the bunch, this hasn’t helped them on that end of the court. They are a middling team at best.
New York Knicks
Having met the Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs last year and built a solid rivalry, the New York Knicks are another team that should be resolute in not overdoing things, but for different reasons. Head coach Tom Thibodeau has a penchant for signing and playing members of the first Chicago Bulls team he coached nearly a decade ago. He played that team into the ground by giving individuals too many minutes, and while he isn’t as guilty of that these days, he relied on Derrick Rose a lot before his injury this season, and Taj Gibson at this point in his career.
Julius Randle has earned Thibodeau’s trust, but the offense is run almost exclusively through him. Meanwhile, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson are getting lost in the shuffle as they are clearly not trusted. Thibodeau needs to trust in the youngsters and not overload Randle.
Make bold decisions
While most fans see Jayson Tatum as the best player on the Boston Celtics, he might not necessarily be the best player to build around. His team-mate Jaylen Brown is always the name thrown into trade rumours, but he is a more adaptable talent that could fit with most superstars. Tatum requires the ball and while he is improving as a passer and someone who can get to the rim, his frustrating fadeaways too far away from the rim means his mindset needs to mature. It can happen, and he could still have MVP seasons in the future, but Brown can be 90 per cent of that and the Celtics could take a closer step towards a championship round sooner if they swap Tatum out for a different lead guy, or a great point guard who can be Brown’s number two.
Portland Trail Blazers
It’s time. The Portland Trail Blazers project with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum has run its course. It’s a real shame, because injuries to key rotation players derailed so many of their contending years, and McCollum has had lung issues this season – possibly making him untradeable this year – so it’s time for the team to get what they can in return for Lillard.
The point guard is 31 years old, and he would be the perfect fit on the Boston Celtics or the Philadelphia 76ers in an almost direct exchange for Jayson Tatum or Ben Simmons, respectively, but he is also the best player in franchise history – trading him away would upset the fanbase and hurt the short-term prospects for this team.
For the Brooklyn Nets, it’s not just about getting healthy, it’s staying healthy, especially with the return of Kyrie Irving. Covid-19 is still scary, especially with players and fans interacting, unlike last season that was largely behind closed doors or the previous season’s playoffs in a bubble.
It took a while for James Harden to get fit to start the year and he might not be in peak shape even yet. The team is relying too much on Kevin Durant playing too many minutes, and given his injury history, this is a concern. Irving’s return should help this but he will only be available for away games unless his or New York’s vaccination status changes.
Health will be a challenge but keeping the stars’ minutes low should ensure they are healthy for a Finals run, and a lower seed might not be a bad idea, just in case a series goes to Game 7 and they need Irving.
It doesn’t look like the Denver Nuggets will be too healthy too soon. Reigning MVP Nikola Jokić is playing even better this year, but with no news on Jamal Murray returning after a severe injury last year, and Michael Porter Jr being out for probably the rest of the regular season, it should be difficult to get back to the playoffs.
But with the MVP still playing well, it will be interesting to see if Denver is active at the trade deadline – maybe to bring back former Nugget Jerami Grant – but the franchise has also preached patience with these injured guys in the hope that they will stay together for many years to come.
It’s incredible that the LA Clippers have even stuck around in the playoff picture this season, given the fact that they have been without Kawhi Leonard all season – and are likely to be for the rest of it – and Paul George has missed a stretch. Not only that, they are playing badly. In recent weeks, they have dropped games to the San Antonio Spurs, the Sacramento Kings and the Oklahoma City Thunder. Better health will mean all their best players are playing in the right position, but it doesn’t look like it will happen this season.
It feels like most teams haven’t had a lengthy stretch of games with their starting five at any point this year, but the Miami Heat are among the most unlucky when it comes to missing time. Kyle Lowry should fit perfectly with this team, and alongside Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, PJ Tucker and Duncan Robinson, the Heat are +9 per 100 possessions. The problem is Butler has missed nearly half the season so far, as has Adebayo, Markieff Morris has missed two-thirds of the games this year and we are yet to see Victor Oladipo this year. Getting healthy for 2022 is a priority and could result in another Finals run.
Have a Plan B
The Chicago Bulls have done a brilliant job putting together a competitive roster this year. They have been in the top 10 for points per game for most of the season. Lonzo Ball, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic are among the best three-man units in the league, and DeMar DeRozan is having an MVP-level season. Throw in Alex Caruso as an ideal defensive weapon for a team that lacks in that department and the Bulls have become one of the most fun teams in the league. But deep, they are not, and despite some heroics from DeRozan recently, the team has slipped when the starters have been out. Keep an eye on Chicago to develop its bench and build a plan for when the starters take a breather, because at the moment, their scoring dips to the bottom half of the NBA.
It’s all well and good having a top three most dangerous offensive player in the league on your team, but when he leaves the floor, you need someone else to step up. The Dallas Mavericks need to develop a system that encourages the wizardry of Luka Doncic but gets him working off the ball, and gets team-mates working efficiently as well. They play well when he isn’t in the game – scoring around four points better than when Doncic is running the show – but everything goes through his hands. There is plenty of time to figure it all out, and Dončić is getting healthy, but whether or not the new head coach can put in a plan to marry the two together remains to be seen.
In the past 18 years, the Cleveland Cavaliers have selected the first overall pick in four drafts: 2003 – LeBron James, 2011 – Kyrie Irving, 2013 – Anthony Bennett, 2014 – Andrew Wiggins. In many ways, they all contributed to the 2016 NBA Championship, even if Bennett and Wiggins did so by being valued assets worth trading away for veteran talent. This season, they might have the best player in the draft again in Evan Mobley, even if he wasn’t selected number one and slipped to third for the Cavs. He is the best rookie the team has had since James, and has helped them be well ahead of schedule, competing for a top-four spot in the Eastern Conference. The best thing about the team is that outside of Ed Davis – who has played just 12 games – Ricky Rubio – who is sadly out for the season with injury – and Kevin Love – a veteran holdover and potential trade bait from the championship year – no other players have more than five years of service. They are learning to be successful with a young core, so patience is required, but hopes are high.
It’s common for young teams to take time to build consistency, but the .500 performance of the Charlotte Hornets shows how they have already achieved such a thing: they beat the teams they are better than and lose to the more experienced competition with better talent. It might seem simple, but taking care of business shows growth. The good is that young talent has been amassed: LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges, Cody Martin and PJ Washington offer a bright future. The bad is that three players earning more than $60 million this season will play like All-NBA talent one night then disappear another. Patience is needed for the youth to become consistent All-NBA performers but they need to learn the skill from the elder statesmen.
‘Patience’ can be a frustrating thing to hear given the franchise has made just one playoffs since 2004, but Minnesota needs to give its Timberwolves time. Everybody thought Karl-Anthony Towns was going to be the saviour, especially when paired with number one draft pick Andrew Wiggins. It took a few years of turmoil, and a season of Jimmy Butler dragging them to the playoffs, to realise they needed someone else, and he came in the shape of Anthony Edwards. So even though fans have been teased and promised playoffs in previous years, building a contender for real starts now that Towns has a good running mate, but it will take some time.
Oklahoma City Thunder
A year under the tutelage of Chris Paul in 2019-20 has turned Shai Gilgeous-Alexander into an All-Star calibre player by just his third season. And the Oklahoma City Thunder have started surrounding him with complementary talent, including the Australian Josh Giddey and Lu Dort. They have one of the most exciting young cores in the league. It’ll take a few years to get everything in a position where they are winning regularly but by continuing to add talent that enhances the existing roster, we could see that sooner rather than later.
San Antonio Spurs
It’s unsure how long Gregg Popovich will be around with the San Antonio Spurs to develop the talent they have but the one thing they need to be patient with is the talent. Dejounte Murray might be the best young point guard in the men’s NBA, and the Spurs have one of the youngest rosters in the Popovich era, which includes Team USA talent. This has resulted in the team having a top-five offense for parts of this season thanks to some ridiculous scoring outbursts. The trouble is they have a bottom 10 defense – unlike most previous Popovich teams – which is another sign of inexperience.
The LA Lakers had built such a good young roster in recent years – the 2019-20 championship proved that. The only problem is they shipped half of it to the Washington Wizards to trade for Russell Westbrook. They burst out of the gates with a 10-3 record and while things have slowed slightly, they have shown an ability to compete with anyone. The thing they are missing is Bradley Beal hasn’t been the player he’s been the past three seasons. Part of this is learning to play with a better supporting cast so patience is required this season as he, and they, adapts.
Choose a path
Jerami Grant has certainly shown he is capable of more than what he was doing with the Denver Nuggets a few seasons ago. But it’s not easy being the number one option, especially when the supporting cast is not great, which is what he has with the Detroit Pistons. He has missed some time with injuries, and things have been a mess in terms of games missed due to Covid-19 protocols – as they have for all teams – with the Pistons playing a joint-most 24 players so far this season (with the Dallas Mavericks), making chemistry difficult. It might be that Detroit picks a path that includes Grant, but they will need to consider how he works with last year’s top draft pick Cade Cunningham, as well as Luka Garza and other youngsters such as Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart as part of that future path.
It feels like every year one player is hyped up in the Magic Kingdom and the wider NBA world doesn’t hear much about them again after that. Now Nikola Vučević is gone, we’ve been through the promised rebirth of Markelle Fultz, the arrival of Mo Bamba, the potential of Jonathan Isaacs, the promise of Chuma Okeke and now the rise of Cole Anthony and Franz Wagner. Each season it seems like the system is built around a different player and with the new coach Jamahl Mosley, second-year point guard Anthony is the latest beneficiary, but what this means to the fifth overall draft pick, and fellow point guard Jalen Suggs, remains to be seen.
After last year’s Florida-based mess of a season, the Toronto Raptors are recovering from losing most of the main components that helped the franchise win its first championship in 2019. They have not had extended stretches with those who remain – Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet – and the young group of Scottie Barnes, Precious Achiuwa and even Canadian rookie Dalano Banton have shown they might be worth investing in. But now that the veterans are getting healthy, they still have so much to offer – with VanVleet especially having an All-Star-level season – and they could offer an excellent return should the Raptors wish to continue the youth movement and trade for future picks or younger assets. The franchise could be patient and continue to develop the youngsters behind the champions, but with plenty of people potentially calling at this season’s trade deadline, decisions will need to be made.
Golden State Warriors
You might think the Golden State Warriors don’t want to do anything. Compared to last season, they have a bench that can keep the scoreboard ticking over with Stephen Curry on the bench or when he has a bad shooting stretch, they are among the Western Conference leaders, and they haven’t even had Klay Thompson or James Wiseman play yet. Their return should help sure up the team, but Wiseman is yet to live up to the potential of a second overall pick. He still has value and would potentially be worth more on a rebuilding team, whereas the Warriors have a hole at the big position. They have a chance to bring in a great passing big or a floor spreader by trading with the Indiana Pacers for Domantas Sabonis or Myles Turner, respectively. They will still have youth in Jonathan Kuminga, Jordan Poole and Gary Payton to hand over the reins of the offense too as Curry and Thompson age out.
The Houston Rockets have the best of both worlds right now. They are comfortably tanking, with the worst record in the Western Conference, but there is some half-decent basketball to watch. The only things that could send them into full tank mode is by trading away their only real asset, Christian Wood. The former G-Leaguer is averaging 17 points, 10 rebounds and two assists, and is playing like an All-Star. A championship contender should be willing to give up several assets for Wood, and the Rockets could acquire a few more picks for a few more swings at bat. They also have John Wall burning $40 million on the bench.
The Indiana Pacers have been open about the availability of Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis and Chris LeVert. Under new head coach Rick Carlisle, Turner has been more efficient, while Sabonis has been moved out of the spots that made him successful in years past. LeVert is projecting as a Lou Williams-like scorer, so he could prove useful on any team coming off the bench, but not as a primary guard. The Pacers have a great point guard in Malcolm Brogdon, and an offense could be built featuring either Turner or Sabonis, but not both. Owner Herb Simon is 87, and would like to see the team contend for a championship, so don’t expect all three to be shipped out, but they want a prize in return.
It’s not that LeBron James is over the hill. It’s not that Russell Westbrook can’t be a dangerous force on the right team. It’s not that Anthony Davis can’t complete a full season. It’s not even that as individuals, the supporting cast is too old. It’s a combination of all of these things. A perfect storm that creates such irrelevance. James is possibly still the best passer in the league and can win a game by himself at any time, but not for a whole season, especially with an ageing supporting cast and a number two who is injured. And Westbrook doesn’t know how to run a team that isn’t built around his do-or-die skillset, which has diminished slightly in recent years as age and injury has caught up. The team is not built to win, and it must move on from several elements of its construction.
New Orleans Pelicans
It doesn’t seem fair that the most exciting player of his generation should have such health issues so early in his career, but Zion Williamson’s absences are proving difficult for the New Orleans Pelicans to handle. In three seasons, he has lived up to the hype, but with just 85 games in three seasons, the issue is not going away, unless they trade him away. He would likely still demand a high return, and it might provide enough to make up for the loss of a generational talent if he doesn’t stick around for a long career. The coaching staff is managing the situation as best as possible, with Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valančiūnas putting in All-Star worthy seasons, but the roster isn’t built for them and the result is a terrible record so far this season. Unless Williamson can put together a string of healthy seasons, his value is going to get worse, but a new training staff might be able to keep him fit enough to unlock the passing and athletic dominance he has promised.
Whether it was in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Atlanta Hawks, or before then, the Philadelphia 76ers gave up on Ben Simmons. He was in trade rumours for two seasons and it would frustrate anyone to know they are not wanted, even if he has precedent for similar antics of upsetting teams and team-mates, such as with the Australian national team and his college season at LSU. Regardless, the 76ers need to move him out of respect and to generate any decent return. It’s gone on too long now.
Not many teams have had more problems than the Sacramento Kings, to the point where they don’t just need to shift one or two players, there needs to be a discussion about the construction of the franchise. Monte McNair took over the executive duties from Vlade Divac in 2020 and hasn’t made much of an impact yet outside of removing coach Luke Walton, who probably wasn’t the problem with the team, which hasn’t played .500 basketball since 2005-06, and hasn’t won 40 games in a season since Vivek Ranadivé acquired the team in 2013. McNair might still need a bit more time to make roster changes, but ownership needs to give him time and space to construct his vision.
It’s easy to be hard on the Ja Morant. In the Memphis Grizzlies’ first 35 games, they went 10-2 without him but 11-11 with him in the line-up. For that reason, it’s easy to forget how he dragged his team to the playoffs last season with a 35-point performance over the Golden State Warriors in the play-in game, then averaged 30 points and eight rebounds against the top-seeded Utah Jazz – even winning Game 1 and putting up 47 points in Game 2.
The Grizzlies haven’t had great health, with Dillon Brooks in and out of the line-up as well, but they have boasted a top-four record in the Western Conference and are well ahead of schedule with such a young core. They won’t win a championship this season, but the world should appreciate the potential of this team, and this group should enjoy the journey ahead of them.
After breaking through to win a championship last season, the Milwaukee Bucks had nothing to worry about coming into this year. Lose a few championship players? No worries. New players not working out? Oh, well. Covid-19 protocols? If you say so. Injuries to starters? Yeah, OK.
Without really playing well for the first few months, the Bucks are floating around the top of the Eastern Conference and if healthy they probably have the best roster to take on the Brooklyn Nets. Nobody is talking about them, but the Bucks are the championship favourites hiding in plain sight.
It takes a lot to win a championship. Each era in NBA history is littered with teams that couldn’t get over the hump, and the Phoenix Suns are in danger of being the next. Led by Chris Paul, this generation’s President of the Best Player Without A Championship Club, the Suns made it to the Finals last season to the surprise of some and couldn’t win it all. It was their first season with this core, and they lost against the team that had questions about their ability to step up after several seasons of being unable to – the Milwaukee Bucks. If Phoenix doesn’t take the next step this year, Paul will be another year older, the pressure will mount and it will begin to get more difficult to win four games on the ultimate stage.
While the Phoenix Suns are hoping to avoid reaching the stage where basketball fans are asking questions about their ability to step up, the Utah Jazz have firmly reached that level. Donovan Mitchell joined the team in 2017-18 and proved he was the piece they were missing, reaching the Conference Semifinals, winning 50 games the next season, and toe-to-toe with the Denver Nuggets in the playoffs during the Orlando bubble. Last year they had the best record in the league from start to finish and couldn’t get past the LA Clippers without Kawhi Leonard, so they have now reached the stage where casual fans are only going to pay attention to the Jazz if they get beyond the Conference Finals. It’s time to step up.
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