The Brooklyn Nets look like such a title favorite that James Harden felt the need for a reminder they aren’t a title team.
“We’re not the target. The defending champions are the targets,” Harden said. “They won last year. We’re trying to catch them.”
It’s easy to forget about the Milwaukee Bucks. They have the NBA crown, but none of the drama of some other top contenders in the Eastern Conference, where the situations with Ben Simmons in Philadelphia and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn were the biggest stories leading into the season.
Those two teams finished ahead of Milwaukee in the regular season, but the Bucks ousted the Nets in the second round and went on to win their first NBA title in 50 years.
Giannis Antetokounmpo went home and celebrated in Greece. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday went to Japan and won an Olympic gold medal.
Now they are back together again, quietly working toward a repeat amid all the noise around them.
The Nets won’t allow Irving to play or practice with them until he is vaccinated, instead of letting him play in road games while he is ineligible to play at home because of New York’s vaccination mandate.
Kevin Durant and Harden might still be good enough with a potent roster around them, but the Nets — and their rivals — know they aren’t the same team without Irving’s talents.
“Probably the team took the best decision for them to keep the players as locked in as possible and not take that outside noise to affect the team as they go for a championship run,” Antetokounmpo said. “They have a great team. Do I know if it’s right or wrong? I don’t know. I’ve got to think about it. But at the end of the day, I think everybody’s entitled to their own opinion. But Kyrie’s a great player.”
The 76ers, who had the best record in the East last season, have been without Simmons for almost the entire preseason while the All-Star guard stayed away in hopes of a trade. He finally arrived in Philadelphia this week.
Even if those teams are weakened, it seems like a stronger conference than a season ago. Miami got Kyle Lowry. The surprising New York Knicks added Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. The Chicago Bulls could be poised for a move with DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball.
“A lot of teams in our conference have gotten better. We have to get better,” said Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau, whose team finished a surprising fourth last season.
A look at the East, in predicted order of finish:
1. Brooklyn: With former MVPs and scoring champions Durant and Harden healthy, the Nets may not even need a Big Three.
2. Milwaukee: If Antetokounmpo dominates like he did in the NBA Finals, a third MVP award in four years is possible.
3. Miami: Heat never found their top form after reaching NBA Finals in the bubble, but got both more rest and more talent during this longer offseason.
4. Philadelphia: Could be anywhere from 1 with Simmons to 8 without him, so put the 76ers in the middle for now.
5. Atlanta: Trae Young and the improving Hawks are a team on the rise after reaching the East finals.
6. New York: Added good scoring punch to what was a top defensive team in Thibodeau’s first season.
INTO THE PLAY-IN
7. Boston: Getting Al Horford back in green should pay off for the Celtics.
8. Chicago: Count on Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball providing plenty of highlights.
9. Indiana: Getting Rick Carlisle into a locker room that had friction between players and coach last season is a major move.
10. Charlotte: Were tough for anyone last season when Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward were both healthy.
FACING LONG ODDS
11. Toronto: Being home again should make Raptors a playoff contender again, even without Lowry.
12. Washington: Lost a great individual talent in Russell Westbrook but could be a better team with newcomers such as Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyle Kuzma.
13. Cleveland: Collin Sexton and Darius Garland will shoot them to some wins, just not quite enough.
14. Detroit: No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham takes his place on a Pistons team that has some good young pieces.
15. Orlando: Magic traded away their best players last season and might be years away from contending again.
Eyes on Embiid: Joel Embiid was putting together an MVP-type season in Philadelphia last season before he was hurt. The 76ers might need him to be great again without knowing what they’ll get from Simmons.
Better Brooklyn: Durant had little help when both Harden and Irving were hurt during the series against the Bucks. But with the additions of Patty Mills, Paul Millsap, James Johnson and the unretired LaMarcus Aldridge, the Nets look deep enough to overcome any absences this season.
Top-seed slump: The 76ers went out in the second round last season, making it five straight years that the No. 1 seed couldn’t win the East. Cleveland was the last team to do it, in 2016.
Coaching changes: The four teams with new coaches range from playoff clubs to rebuilding ones. Ime Udoka takes over for Brad Stevens in Boston, Carlisle is back for a second stint in Indiana, Wes Unseld Jr. comes home to Washington and Jamahl Mosley gets his change in Orlando.
It may be a roster like none other.
The Los Angeles Lakers have four of the NBA’s top seven active scorers. The top three leading active rebounders. Three of the top four active leaders in assists. Three of the top five in blocks. Three of the top five in wins. Four of the top six in steals. They could even have five Olympic gold medalists on the floor at once and another on the bench.
Given all that talent — LeBron James leading the way, with a half-dozen players on the roster with at least reasonable chances of one day being elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame — it’s easy to see why the Lakers would be a fashionable pick to emerge as the Western Conference representative in the NBA Finals this season.
“I’m excited for what’s in store for us this year,” James said. “But every day is a process. Every day, it’s all about the journey and then you just put in the work.”
James and Anthony Davis are back from the team that won the 2020 NBA championship — two seasons, yet only 12 months ago. Talen Horton-Tucker was also on that team, but didn’t play in the NBA Finals. Everyone else is new, or sort of new, to the Lakers.
Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard were on that team, left the Lakers and since returned. Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and DeAndre Jordan were among those added this offseason.
Anthony, Trevor Ariza, James, Howard and Rondo are all 35 or older already, and Wayne Ellington — another newcomer — turns 34 in November.
“The narrative about our age, I kind of laugh at it,” James said. “I really do laugh. I’m not just saying that.”
Even with all that proven talent, the Lakers are no lock to get back to the finals. A look at the West, in predicted order of finish:
1. L.A. Lakers: Old, yes. Good, yes. Really good ... time will tell. James convinced players like Anthony and Westbrook to run with him, which suggests he’s loading up for a title run.
2. Phoenix: Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton made it work last season, but the Suns won’t be surprising anyone this year. Coach Monty Williams pushed every right button last season.
3. Utah: Donovan Mitchell’s ankle played a big role in Utah’s playoff demise last season. He’s raring to go, and with him, Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles there’s no reason why the Jazz shouldn’t think title.
4. Denver: Michael Malone remains one of the league’s underrated coaches. Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic is all-worldly good, Jamal Murray will be back and Denver’s defense gives it a chance every night.
5. Golden State: Stephen Curry was MVP-level good last year. Klay Thompson’s return will be a big lift whenever it happens. Andre Iguodala returns for his final season. There’s nothing not to like here.
6. Dallas: Luka Doncic just keeps getting better and better. New coach Jason Kidd, who won a title in Dallas as a player, will have this team scoring a ton of points. The wild-card: Kristaps Porzingis.
INTO THE PLAY-IN
7. L.A. Clippers: The Clippers might do just enough to get into the playoff mix, then get a healthy and well-rested Kawhi Leonard back from his knee rehab for the stretch run. A scary proposition for opponents.
8. Portland: Damian Lillard is as good of a scorer and leader as there is in the game, and surely will benefit from being part of the Olympic team this summer. Blazers must — must — take a leap forward.
9. San Antonio: The easiest thing Gregg Popovich could have done was take his Olympic gold medal, retire and enjoyed wine for the rest of his life. He came back for a reason. Don’t forget the Spurs.
10. Memphis: Steven Adams playing pick-and-roll with Ja Morant should lead to automatic scores. And Morant is on his way to elite, without question. But the Grizzlies are still so very young.
FACING LONG ODDS
11. New Orleans: Zion Williamson is the key to everything. If he’s great, they’ll be higher.
12. Sacramento: This is way too low for the Kings. Then again, the West is also that good.
13. Minnesota: This is the Timberwolves’ fate — unless they are winners of the Ben Simmons Trade Sweepstakes.
14. Houston: Jalen Green is going to put up enormous numbers and contend for top rookie.
15. Oklahoma City: At some point, the basketball world will learn what all those draft picks will become.
FanDuel says ... : FanDuel Sportsbook also lists the Lakers as the pick to come out of the West, since the Lakers are the second-choice behind Brooklyn when it comes to NBA title odds. The other top five NBA Finals contenders in the West, in order, based on FanDuel odds: Golden State, Utah, Phoenix, then the Clippers. When just betting on the West race, the order is a bit different with a top five of the Lakers, Golden State and the Clippers tied for second, followed by Utah and Phoenix.
MVP race: There has never been a stretch of four consecutive international MVPs in the NBA. That might change this year, if a couple of West stars do what many expect they will. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo won in 2019 and 2020, Jokic won in 2021, and Jokic and Doncic have to be considered among the frontrunners in 2022.
To the end: The last shot James took in the 2020-21 regular season was a made layup with 6:41 left in the season finale against New Orleans, giving him 25 points. He was subbed out six seconds later and didn’t return. The significance was this: It gave James a scoring average of 25.02 points for the season — extending his record streak of 25-point-average seasons to 17 in a row. Had he not gotten that final basket, he’d have averaged 24.98 points and (technically, anyway) the streak would have ended.
3s remain wild: Utah set an NBA record last season by averaging 16.7 made 3-pointers per game. That means the top seven entries on that list in NBA history are all filled by West teams: Houston (16.1 in 2018-19), Portland (15.7 last season), Houston (15.6 in 2019-20), Houston (15.3 in 2017-18), Dallas (15.1 in 2019-20) and Golden State (14.6 last season).
West vs. East: The champs may hail from Milwaukee and the Eastern Conference, but the Western Conference — again — won the head-to-head against the other side of the league last season. West teams won 54% of their games against the East. It marked the 12th straight season and 21st time in the last 22 years that the West held a edge over the East.