Very Early Predictions for 2021–22 NBA Championship Contenders

By Patrick Hayes   September 15, 2021 

Very Early Predictions for 2021–22 NBA Championship Contenders

The NBA is clearly a star-driven league, so last season’s NBA Finals matchup between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns was a pleasant change of pace from a Finals landscape that has been dominated by LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Steph Curry in recent years.

It also shouldn’t be a surprise that, at least according to NBA Futures odds, that isn’t expected to last. The defending champion Bucks and the defending Western Conference champion Suns currently have the fourth and fifth best odds, respectively, of winning the 2022 NBA championship. 

That isn’t a reflection of anything those teams did or didn’t do in the offseason, either. The Bucks extended head coach Mike Budenholzer and re-signed Bobby Portis, who played a major role off the bench in the team’s title run. They also bring back their three stars, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton. Middleton and Holiday also helped Team USA win a Gold Medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics this summer.

Jul 17, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward P.J. Tucker (17) celebrates with forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34), guard Jrue Holiday (21) and forward Khris Middleton (22) as Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker (1) walks off the court following game five of the 2021 NBA Finals at Phoenix Suns Arena. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Suns handled their biggest piece of offseason business by re-signing free agent Chris Paul to a new contract. They also brought back backup Cameron Payne, who had big moments in relief of Paul during their playoff run, and added Landry Shamet, Elfrid Payton, and JaVale McGee to their bench. 

So, objectively, both teams retained their core and had good offseasons. But those offseasons were overshadowed by other teams, and that is reflected in the futures odds. Currently, here are the teams given the best chance at winning a championship next season:

  1. Brooklyn Nets
  2. Los Angeles Lakers
  3. Golden State Warriors
  4. Milwaukee Bucks
  5. Phoenix Suns

The Utah Jazz, the team with the best record in the league last season, is only given the sixth best odds of winning a title.

The top of those odds is largely based on a belief that the Nets, Lakers, and Warriors will have healthy stars this season. Brooklyn was a favorite for the title last season, and had the Bucks down 2-0 in the second round of the playoffs. But injuries to Kyrie Irving and James Harden allowed Milwaukee a chance to get back in the series. The Nets will have Blake Griffin for a full season this season. He was brought in as a free agent in the middle of last season and made good contributions down the stretch. They also added more depth at guard by signing Patty Mills, who is capable of big scoring games and can spell Irving or Harden. A healthy season from its stars should vault Brooklyn to the top of the East standings.

The Lakers are hoping that LeBron James and Anthony Davis can overcome their injury issues, but the team also remade its entire roster around them. Most notably, they brought in former MVP Russell Westbrook to take playmaking pressure off of James. If the Lakers can combine better health with finding some shooting to surround its stars, they should be title contenders once again.

The Warriors are the wildcard in this mix. Like the Lakers and Nets, they’ll get an injured star back in Klay Thompson. But Thompson is more of a question mark, because unlike James, Davis, Irving, Durant, and Harden, Thompson wasn’t on the court at all last season. In fact, he’s been out for nearly two years with serious injuries. The Warriors hope he can return to his old form, but they’ll have to wait and see when he gets on the court. If he is back to normal, though, expect the Warriors to make a big leap in the standings.

There are a couple of dark horse teams that could vault into contender status this season, though. The Chicago Bulls are currently at +6600 odds to win the championship. Chicago added former All-Star DeMar Derozan and promising young guard Lonzo Ball in free agency. They have two established All-Stars in Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, a couple of promising young players in Coby White and Patrick Williams, and bolstered their bench with veterans Alex Caruso and Derrick Jones Jr. With the East’s elite teams all having injury issues at times in the past, the Bulls could easily out-perform expectations this season and make a strong playoff run.

The Miami Heat also positioned themselves nicely to make a good playoff run. They were eliminated in the first-round last year, but are just a season removed from making the NBA Finals. They have an MVP candidate in Jimmy Butler, one of the best young centers in the league in Bam Adebayo, and brought in veteran and former All-Star Kyle Lowry and his championship experience. They were also able to re-sign former All-Star Victor Oladipo cheaply, and if he’s healthy at some point in the season, the Heat could definitely be a threat to get back to the Finals. They’re currently at +3000 odds to win the title, 10th overall according to futures. If young players Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson continue to improve, their odds should improve even more as the season goes on.

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