As Super Bowl fever took over the sports world, the 2021-22 NBA season was pivoting to the race for the playoffs. Here’s what you need to know to get locked in on the Association again.
It’s been nearly two weeks now since Super Bowl LVI marked the end of the NFL season. Whether locked-out Major League Baseball happens at all this year is up for discussion. And you’re not a soccer fan and college basketball doesn’t quite move the needle for you, might I suggest diving headfirst into the National Basketball Association, the greatest sports league on earth?
Following All-Star Weekend in Cleveland, the regular season resumed on Thursday, Feb. 24 for a stretch run of 20-25 games depending on who your favorite team happens to be. But even if you’re one of those misguided souls that doesn’t follow the league until Christmas or MLK Day or even until now, we’ve got you covered on what you’ve been missing (a lot) and what you should be looking forward to (also a lot) for the 2021-22 season’s spirited stretch run.
Let’s get into it.
The Defending Champs are Strong Again
After their first championship in 50 years, the Milwaukee Bucks are right there in contention to go back to back. Led by Finals MVP and WhatsApp’s first pitchman Giannis Antetokounmpo and All-Stars Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, the 36-24 Bucks are just 2.5 games behind the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Milwaukee has the NBA’s No. 6 most efficient offense, playing at the ninth-fastest pace to go with the 12th-best defense, all strong rankings when considering they went without Giannis for 11 games, Middleton for 12, and Holiday for 13. You’ll see a lot of Bucks games played beyond the arc, with Milwaukee No. 4 in 3-pointers made per game and last in the league in treys allowed. But what Mike Budenholzer’s team lacks in perimeter defense, it has in interior D, with the Bucks currently sitting third in the NBA in rebounding, fourth-best in 2-pointers allowed, and seventh in opponents’ made free throws per game.
Though he hasn’t been as impactful of late, Milwaukee acquired 2019 champ and three-time All-Defense center Serge Ibaka in a four-team deal at the Feb. 10 trade deadline to improve its rim protection further. If the Bucks are healthy, they have the star power, shooting, defense, coaching and pedigree to do it again.
Power in the Eastern Conference
For more than 20 years, the Western Conference has clearly been dominant over the East. We’ve heard jabs like the Leastern Conference and the Junior Varsity and the haters were right.
This year is different.
It’s now the East with more teams over .500, eight to seven, as part of an insanely tight playoff race at the top of the conference. Seven teams are within five games of each other at the top!
- Miami is first led by All-Star Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry and 6th Man of the Year frontrunner Tyler Herro.
- After an offseason makeover that included signing All-Star starter DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso to join All-Star Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, the Chicago Bulls are in 2nd and relevant for the first time in a while.
- Led by MVP candidate Joel Embiid and newly-acquired James Harden, who we’ll get to, the Philadelphia 76ers are tied for 3rd with…the Cleveland Cavaliers? The Cavs have two All-Stars in Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, Rookie of the Year frontrunner Evan Mobley and are on pace to make the playoffs for the first time without LeBron James since 1997-1998.
- Milwaukee, mentioned above, are 5th, followed by the surging Boston Celtics, who have won nine of 10 under first year head coach Ime Udoka. And in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, the spunky, young, energetic Toronto Raptors are 7th with All-Star Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Gary Trent Jr., OG Anunoby and rookie Scottie Barnes.
And that list doesn’t include championship contenders the Brooklyn Nets, last year’s conference finalist Atlanta Hawks and the LaMelo Ball-led Charlotte Hornets! The East is loaded and a trip to the Finals is there for the taking.
Let’s talk about The Trade
Just over a year after forcing a trade from Houston to Brooklyn, James Harden did it again.
In the blockbuster heard ’round the world on Feb, 10, The Beard rejoined Daryl Morey with the Philadelphia 76ers. Ben Simmons, who gave up nearly $20 million not to play for Philly this season in hopes for a path out of town, is now a Net. Brooklyn’s vaunted Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and Harden was disbanded after playing just 16 games together.
The full trade: Harden and Paul Millsap to Philadelphia for Simmons, sharpshooter Seth Curry, veteran big man Andre Drummond, and two first-round picks. (Right on cue, Harden’s No. 1 Sixers jersey has been the league’s top-selling uni on Fanatics since the deal.) Simmons has vowed to return in time for the March 10 must-see event of the season when Brooklyn at Philadelphia meet on national TV, the first clash in what should be one of the league’s top new rivalries on an ongoing basis. Familiarity, bad blood, recriminations, and championship dreams all rolled into one? That’s not exactly a tough sell.
If you like hardwood entertainment with endless narrative intrigue, look no further than Brooklyn-Philly.
You Need to Watch Ja Morant
The Memphis Grizzlies are 41-19 with the 3rd-best record in the NBA. And most of that has to do with the daring, ferocious, mesmerizing play of 22-year-old third-year guard Ja Morant.
With averages of 26.8 points, 6.9 assists, and 5.8 rebounds per game, Ja attacks to the rim like it hurt his family, dunks even harder and makes highlight reel blocks, steals and passes regularly, cementing himself as a superstar and MVP candidate at an exceptionally young age. Despite being just 6-foot-3, he has a chance to be the first guard in 25 years to lead the league in points scored per game in the paint.
Memphis has one of the league’s youngest, most exciting rosters and Morant has the Grizz far ahead of schedule. Do yourself a favor and check them out.
The Battle for Best in the West
While the Grizzlies sit No. 3 in the West, the top seed belongs to the defending conference champion Phoenix Suns — and right now, the margin is not close. At 48-10, the Suns are 6.5 games ahead of the second-place Golden State Warriors.
But with All-Star and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul sidelined for six to eight weeks with a broken hand, All-Star Devin Booker, center DeAndre Ayton, and shooters like Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson will have to carry Phoenix to the playoffs without CP3.
That could open the door for Memphis or the record-setting Stephen Curry, first-time All-Star Andrew Wiggins, defensive anchor Draymond Green, the resurgent Klay Thompson, and a deep and youthful bench to come pretty damn close to catching the Suns.
The Suns have won eight straight games entering the weekend, but just how they look without Paul running the offense will be an item of inrigue. And Golden State and Memphis will be waiting for them to slip up.
With the two best records in the league, the Suns and Warriors are naturally the two betting favorites to win the championship at FanDuel Sportsbook. But the Brooklyn Nets, who are currently No. 8 in the East and would have to win in the Play-In Tournament to make the playoffs, nonetheless have the third-best odds.
FanDuel is clearly factoring Durant’s return to the court, Kyrie Irving eventually being able to play in both home and away games, and Simmons returning to the court for the first time since last season all going gangbusters. Elsewhere, Milwaukee, Philly, and Miami are the other three teams with 10:1 odds or better to win it all.
With Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, and Mike Conley leading the way, the Utah Jazz lurk at +1500. It’s a big drop-off from there with Boston, Chicago, and ever-disrespected Memphis. If Denver could possibly get injured stars Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. back to support reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and Aaron Gordon, the Nuggets are gonna be a problem.
And then you have the Los Angeles Lakers. Remember them? They’re 27-31 and No. 9 in the West due to injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis and a Russell Westbrook trade that hasn’t produced all of the desired results. They have the same odds as Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks and are ahead of the Cavs to round out the list of the take-a-flier dark horses.
All told, the NBA title race is wide open and the storylines are compelling and endless. So grab some popcorn, turn on your TV, and get back to watching some NBA basketball. You’ll be happy you did.