13. Detroit Pistons
The past two seasons, the Pistons have not been able to qualify for the playoffs, let alone win more than 20 games. It’s what helped them secure the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft, where they were able to draft Cade Cunningham from Oklahoma State, the most sought after prospect in the draft.
Cunningham led Oklahoma State to the BIG 12 Tournament Finals where they were runner-ups to the Texas Longhorns. They were also ejected early in a second round upset in the NCAA March Madness Tournament, but that didn’t stop Cunningham from scoring 39 points. He won both the BIG 12 Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, an honor shared by only three other NBA players, including Kevin Durant.
[Update Fri. Sep 3]: Cade Cunningham impressed at the Summer League, but lost in his game against the Rockets and their No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green. Doesn’t say much as to how the season will go for the No. 1 draft pick, but Cunningham will now have some help with the acquisition of center DeAndre Jordan of the Nets, in exchange for Jahlil Okafor.
12. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls similarly went the past two seasons without qualifying for the playoffs, but that’s only half of their four year drought. They fared a little better than the Pistons in 2021, going 31-41, and that’s mostly thanks to Zach LaVine, who averaged 27 points per game last season.
Hoping to build a winning team around him, the Bulls acquired 6’11” center Nikola Vucevic from the Magic, who averaged 24.5 points, and have spent the off-season wheeling and dealing. Their biggest get came with Lonzo Ball from the Pelicans in a sign-and-trade worth $85m over four years. The older brother of 2021 Rookie of the Year LaMelo, Lonzo would become the Bulls next guard alongside with fellow new teammate Alex Caruso from the Lakers.
If that wasn’t enough, the Bulls have also acquired 4x NBA All-Star DeMar DeRozan, who could make an excellent trio with LaVine and Vucevic. As a Compton native, DeRozan also had offers to play for the Clippers or the Lakers, but he turned them both down to play for the Bulls in Chicago (who were also offering more money). DeRozan would probably have had a better chance at winning his first championship with LeBron and the Lakers, or Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers, but with how the Bulls are developing lately, that decision may just say something.
11. Golden State Warriors
With Klay Thompson’s hopeful return from an Achilles tendon injury that sidelined him the entire 2020-2021 season, Steph Curry and the Warriors may be poised to return as a Championship team. In the first installment of the play-in tournament, they were defeated by LeBron and the Lakers, despite Curry putting up 37 points. The Warriors will also have Draymond Green, as well as Andre Iguodala returning. Iquodala played with them for all three of their 2015, 2017, and 2018 NBA Championships.
10. Philadelphia 76ers
Joel Embiid averaged a career-best 28.5 points per game last season, leading a 76ers to the No. 1 seed in the East before falling to Trae Young and the Hawks in the second round. The team has swapped centers with the Lakers, trading Dwight Howard for Andre Drummond, which could prove either an improvement or an odd difficulty. Embiid and Drummond had quite a rivalry earlier in their career, but Drummond assured the press that, “there was never any real beef.”
9. Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks will of course still have Luka Doncic up front, who had been scoring exceptionally for the Slovenian Olympic team in Tokyo, dropping 48 points in their first round match against Argentina. The Mav’s have picked up only one player to my knowledge, in the Knicks’ Reggie Bullock, but Doncic will continue to have the 7’3″ veteran center Kristaps Porzingis behind him, along with shooter Tim Hardaway Jr.
8. Atlanta Hawks
Trae Young was the dark horse of the 2021 NBA post-season, leading the Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals and averaging 24 points per game. He’ll have now a solid season of experience to grow with center Chris Capela and power-forward John Collins, who just agreed to a five-year $125m deal.
7. Los Angeles Clippers
When Kawhi Leonard bowed out of the playoffs due to a knee sprain, Paul George did his best to keep the Clippers viable, but they narrowly fell to the Phoenix Suns 4-2 in the Western Conference Finals. Had the duo remained healthy, they could have potentially held up a bigger fight. They’ll also still have Terrance Mann, who put up a rare 39 points in Game 6 to eliminate the No. 1 seed Utah Jazz, as well as Reggie Jackson, Nicolas Batum, Eric Bledsoe, and DeMarcus Cousins.
6. New York Knicks
After Julius Randle won the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, the Knicks, who made it to their first playoffs since Carmelo Anthony was on the team in 2012, started getting starry eyed. Their playoff team boasted R.J. Barrett, Reggie Bullock (who just got traded to the Mavericks), Immanuel Quickley, and veteran Derrick Rose.
For the 2021-2022 season, the Knicks will add Kemba Walker from the Celtics, who averaged 19 points per game and nearly 90% at the free throw line, as well as Evan Fournier, who has been playing surprisingly well in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. On Thursday, he scored 23 points for Team France, narrowly defeating Luka Doncic and the Slovenian team in order to face Team USA in the Finals tonight, where he won the silver medal.
5. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat, with the duo of Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, have a lot of great things going for them right now other than Disney’s Jungle Cruise commercials. Though defeated in a round one sweep against the eventual championship Bucks, Butler averaged 21 points, and was an NBA All-Star along with center Adebayo. They’ll also have a healthy Victor Oladipo, sidelined in the 2020-2021 season but a former NBA steals leader, and Duncan Robinson, who played a perfect 72 out of 72 games to lead the league in games played, averaging a decent 13 points a game.
Adding to that roster of potential talent, the Heat acquired Kyle Lowry of the 2019 NBA Championship Toronto Raptors in a three-year $85m deal. Even more shockingly, they also picked up defensive bulldog P.J. Tucker of the recent 2021 NBA Championship Bucks, who signed with the Heat on a two-year, $15m deal. Things are heating up in South Beach.
4. Phoenix Suns
The Suns roster has only improved since the 2021-2022 season. They still have Devin Booker, Chris Paul, and center DeAndre Ayton. They also still have a stellar backcourt in Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson, and Cameron Payne. Plus, just this week they added Landry Shamet from the Nets. They played exceptional basketball in very close games of the 2021 NBA Finals, and there’s nothing stopping them from making another Finals appearance in 2022. Chris Paul really wants that ring.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
You would think the 2021 NBA Champions would be higher on the list, but it’s incredibly hard to repeat back-to-back Finals wins. The team has remained relatively unscathed during the off-season, but the Bucks did lose P.J. Tucker in a free agency signing to the Heat. Reportedly, the Bucks couldn’t afford to keep him, but you would think Tucker would have wanted to stay to try and run it back to defend the Championship.
That’s not to say that the Bucks can’t do it, however. The team retains Bobby Portis, Brook Lopez, Jrue Holiday, sharpshooter Khris Middleton, and of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo, arguably the greatest player in the NBA right now. In the last game of the NBA Finals, Giannis recorded 50 points, 14 rebounds and 5 blocks to win the Championship, and he just might do it again.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
Nothing screams “we’re building a Championship team” more than what the Lakers are doing this off-season. To join superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers have been making moves, picking up Dwight Howard from the 76ers and more importantly, 9x All-Star Russell Westbrook, still seeking his first Championship win.
On top of that, the Lakers have also acquired Kendrick Nunn from the Heat (who averaged 14.6 points last season), Malik Monk from the Hornets, and the 37-year-old 10x NBA All-Star Carmelo Anthony. I have no idea what this team will look like or how it will operate, but they’re doing scary things.
1. Brooklyn Nets
Hampered with injuries all season, the Brooklyn Nets weren’t really able to show what they could do, and nothing would excite Basketball more than being able to see James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant all play together at full health. As a trio, they’ve only played eight games together, and seeing Kyrie on the sidelines while Harden limped around the court as KD tried to do it all himself against Giannis in the Bucks was not how anyone thought the new “Big Three” would end the 2020-2021 season.
The potential good news, however, is that they’ve all signed on to try again this upcoming season, with Durant just today signing a massive four-year, $198m contract extension to remain with the Nets. The Nets have also retained some of the best bench players in the league in defensive paint-performer Bruce Brown, rotating centers Blake Griffin and Nic Claxton, and Joe Harris (who led the league in three-point-shooting percentage).
Some may hate the Nets “Big Three,” especially those in Houston cursing James Harden’s name for leaving to play with KD and Kyrie for a chance at the championship, but as a fan of basketball I just really want to be able to see these superstars play at their fullest.
Special shout outs as well to teams that didn’t make the list: Jayson Tatum and the Celtics got a great addition in Dennis Schroeder after Taytum’s excellent Olympics numbers, the Jazz still have a great trio in Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, and Rudy Gay, the Trail Blazers still have Damian Lillard, and Nikola Jokic Nuggets just picked up Jeff Green from the Nets.
What do you think? Drop your thoughts in the comments below and if I’ve missed any major trades, please let me know. It feels like there’s a million a day.