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Saturday, November 27, 2021

A guide to the 2021-22 NBA season

From controversy to championship hopefuls, here’s everything you need to know as the NBA season commences

By OMAR NAVARRO — sports@theaggie.org

In October 2020, the Los Angeles Lakers secured their 17th title in NBA history in the NBA Orlando bubble, tying the Boston Celtics and winning all-time great LeBron James his fourth championship in the process. Fast forward to just over a year later and the league has undergone a whole season and is now in the process of starting another — a far different experience for basketball fans. 

When the 2021-22 season tips off on Oct. 19, there will be more of a sense of normalcy when it comes to the regular schedule of an NBA season. Ever since the four month delay due to COVID-19 back in March 2020, the NBA schedule has been in a funk. The quick turnaround from the Lakers’ championship saw the quickest offseason in professional sports history — just 72 days — to start the 2020-21 season. After a slew of COVID-19 related absences and an uptick in injuries, this longer offseason and season that will run from October to June will be more normal feeling — but that doesn’t mean there are no big stories this time around. 

Although the league has approached a 95% vaccination rate, outspoken players like Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving and Golden State Warriors role player Andrew Wiggins have voiced their refusal to take the vaccine. For what they classify as “personal reasons,” they were outspoken against it; because of the teams they play for, it could become a problem for their respective clubs. 

Due to the vaccination mandates of COVID-19 in San Francisco and New York, both players would not be able to play in home games. Being that those are 41 of the 82 games in a season, this can prove to be troublesome for some teams as missing prominent players could be the difference when it comes to seeding. Not only that, but the players will not be paid for games they miss due to being unvaccinated — a rule that eventually made Wiggins cave in and get vaccinated. The difference between vaccinated and unvaccinated is that vaccinated players will have much fewer restrictions and unvaccinated players will follow similar protocols to last year.

Irving, however, remains adamant that he will not be vaccinated, and the Brooklyn Nets have come to terms with that. What happens or how it affects the team remains to be seen, but what is certain is that this will be making headlines as the season goes on. 

Regardless of the major stories ongoing prior to the start of the season, this year is shaping up to be one of the more memorable ones. With star power all over the league and the return from injury of some superstars, the teams vying for a championship are eager to return to the court. While some teams may be more favored than others, there are many tiers of teams that can make some noise this year.  

NBA Juggernauts look to dethrone the Milwaukee Bucks

    The Milwaukee Bucks won their first NBA title since 1971 this past summer over the Phoenix Suns in six games behind the fantastic play of 2x MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and all-star Khris Middleton. Their fantastic clutch play and timely buckets led them to the championship and now all eyes are on the Bucks, as it is their crown to defend. 

While their offseason additions were not major names — Grayson Allen, Rodney Hood and Semi Ojeleye — their departures include some of the key pieces that led them to the title. PJ Tucker, Bryn Forbes and Jeff Teague all moved on, and players like Tucker, who was a major contributor on the defensive end especially against the likes of Kevin Durant, will leave a hole in the Bucks defense. Still, the main core of Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday is still there, and with all of them healthy they will have a chance against any opponent. Despite being the defending champions, they currently have the fourth best odds to win the NBA championship according to BetMGM — behind some bigger names.

    One of the teams the Bucks defeated enroute to their championship was the Brooklyn Nets, whom they beat in seven games. Although injuries hampered the Nets like losing Irving and having a hobbled James Harden, an overtime thriller is what took down the favorite Nets. As the new season is set to begin, the Nets are healthy again and hoping that it is a thing of the past. Still, their offseason acquisition of guard Patty Mills, LaMarcus Aldridge, James Johnson and Paul Millsap alongside the superstar trio will help lessen the load that they sometimes had to carry. 

What happens with Irving and his vaccination status and how that affects the Nets remains to be seen, but for the time being he will not play home games. Still, they are the odds on favorite to win the Eastern Conference and the NBA Championship. A team who might have something to say about that suffered a similar disappointing early exit last year.

    That team is the Los Angeles Lakers who, as always, provided much conversation this offseason. After losing to the Suns in the first round after superstar Anthony Davis went out of Game 4 with an injury, the Lakers have completely shifted their identity to something that they had more of during their 2020 championship run — defense and toughness. In their complete retooling of their team, their biggest name acquisition by far was their splash trade for former MVP Russell Westbrook, whom they let go of Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma for. 

The addition of Westbrook gives the Lakers even more star power alongside James and Davis as they look to get back to the finals. Questions have risen over the fit, as Westbrook now on the Lakers means Anthony Davis would have played more center due to Westbrook’s struggles shooting. But, the Lakers are not worried about their fit questions, as they are confident they can figure it out over the long season. In addition to Westbrook, the Lakers added Carmelo Anthony, Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington and five other players in their complete restructure of the team that now includes more shooting—  an area they lacked last season. 

As the season is set to begin, the Lakers are not worried about their veteran age, as they will hope it plays to their advantage. Sitting with the second best odds to win the NBA Championship, the Lakers are looking to win another NBA title and maximize whatever time they have left with James as he enters year 19. 

The Championship hopefuls

    While the Bucks, Nets and Lakers continue to receive all the attention, there are a few teams that are looking to stop those teams from winning it all. Last year’s Western Conference representative, the Phoenix Suns, are looking to build on their success of the previous years. Led by all-star Devin Booker and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul (who resigned this offseason), the Suns led a magical run to the finals before falling to the Bucks. Still, their success came virtually out of nowhere, as even their high standing did not give them the respect they deserved. After bringing in Landry Shamet, Javale McGee and bringing back crucial bench piece Cameron Payne, the Suns’ core of Booker, Paul, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton are aiming to once again spoil the party and capture their first title in franchise history.

    Often the subject of the question “What happened to them?”, the Golden State Warriors are finally hoping that this is the year they can get back to the NBA Finals post-Kevin Durant. Even with superstar point guard and 2x MVP Stephen Curry terrorizing the league once again and finishing third in the MVP voting, the Warriors did not make the playoffs after falling to the Memphis Grizzlies in the play-in game. 

This offseason, the Warriors brought in Otto Porter Jr, Nemanja Bjelica, Avery Bradley and Andre Iguodala — a familiar face. After also drafting both Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody, the Warriors are mixing in veterans with younger players they hope can contribute to a championship team. But perhaps the most important piece this season is the return of one of the greatest shooters of all-time — Klay Thompson. After missing the last two seasons due to injuries, the team expects him to be back early in 2022 and be a part of the stretch run for the Warriors. If Thompson can come back healthy, Curry dominates once again and with the contributions of young pieces the Warriors could be a dark horse if the chips fall the right way. 

    Speaking of teams looking to get back, the Miami Heat were on the wrong side of the Lakers’ championship run in 2020 and also suffered a first round exit at the hands of the Bucks. Needing major changes, the Heat were able to do just that, adding NBA Champion point guard Kyle Lowry to the core of Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. Lowry adds the third scoring threat and also gives the Heat the ability to have another player who can create their own shot — something they lacked last year in long stretches. Not only that, but the additions of PJ Tucker and Markieff Morris also give them the ability to have lineup versatility when it comes to certain playoff matchups. In the end, the Heat could shape up to be one of those teams that could make it difficult for someone like the Nets enroute to a championship and find themselves back in the NBA Finals. 

The question marks

    With every NBA season comes injuries, and those came at inopportune times for both the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers. On the Nuggets side, with MVP Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, they were looking to go into the playoffs and build on their 2020 success that saw them be one of the final four teams remaining. But, that quickly came to a halt as Murray tore his ACL, ending his season and ultimately the Nuggets hope of contending. With Murray set to be back sometime during the season, they will look for their midseason trade for Aaron Gordon to be worth it, as having the core three plus forward Michael Porter Jr could make them a legitimate contender in the Western Conference.

    On the other side, the Clippers were able to make their first Western Conference finals in franchise history this past year — but did it without their superstar Kawhi Leonard. Leonard suffered a partially torn ACL in the second round against the Utah Jazz and at the moment there is no timetable for his return. As much as he could return before the playoffs, Leonard’s history of prioritizing his health may mean that he won’t come back at all, which would be a nail in the Clippers’ season. It remains to be seen what happens, but for now the team will try to hold it down. 

    A pair of #1 seeds from last year rounds out the list of question marks — but for entirely different reasons. The Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers look like they may be heading in different directions, as the Jazz’s only big question mark is will they be able to repeat last season’s success as well as translate into the playoffs — something they did not do. 

The 76ers problems, however, are much deeper than that. After all-star Ben Simmons took heavy criticism from not only the fans but his own teammates and coaches, the point guard decided to request a trade this offseason. Adamant he would not show up, Simmons looks as though he may return to avoid fines — but that doesn’t mean he’ll stay for good. It is believed that he still wants out, and having him leave would be a big loss for the 76ers who have major title hopes. Philadelphia’s hope is that they could get something equal in return but that remains to be seen. As it stands, the situation with the 76ers could just be another example of inefficient leadership killing a championship team. 

    The NBA season is upon us once again, and basketball fans are rejoicing. Aside from the teams mentioned above, there are many young stars on the rise that will be enjoyable to watch like Luka Doncic, LaMelo Ball, Anthony Edwards and many more. With a normal October return and so many storylines, it’s no wonder the 75th season of the NBA has more buzz than normal around it. 

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org

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