5 bold predictions for 2021-22 NBA season: Russell Westbrook will mesh on Lakers; Bulls top four seed in East


After the first full offseason since before the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA is finally back and will celebrate its 75th anniversary when the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets face off in the first game of the season Tuesday. 

Heading into the 2021-22 campaign, there’s no shortage of storylines to keep an eye out for — from new head coaches in Boston, Indiana and Dallas, to players joining new teams like Kyle Lowry with the Heat and Russell Westbrook with the Lakers. However, this post will focus on the biggest and boldest predictions before all the action begins. From a Western Conference team ending a long-standing playoff drought, to a former Eastern Conference powerhouse returning to relevance. 

Here are five bold predictions for the 2021-22 NBA season.

1. Westbrook will adapt his game with Lakers

One of the biggest storylines heading into the season is how the Lakers will fare after pulling the trigger on a roster-overhaul move that landed them Russell Westbrook. There’s legitimate reason to worry about his fit on this team, his inefficient shooting numbers being one reason. There’s also the question of how he and LeBron James will coexist on the floor together, as we’ve grown accustomed to James being a point-forward with the Lakers.

While I’m not saying it won’t be a rocky start, considering it takes time for any new partnership to meld properly, I don’t think it will be a miserable season for Westbrook in L.A. as he’ll learn to adapt his game to best suit the Lakers. Instead of seeing Westbrook hoist over 20 shot attempts per game, I think instead we’ll see him be used off-ball more than ever before, and when he is orchestrating the offense, it won’t be to hoist inefficient mid-range jumpers. 

Imagine a possession like this for the Lakers, and instead of James Harden throwing the alley-oop, it’s LeBron:

Or a situation where Westbrook runs a pick-and-roll with LeBron James, either as the ball-handler or the screen setter. Though the Rockets ran it sparingly with Westbrook and Harden, when they did it was a difficult possession to contend, like this:

Though the issue of having two dominant ball-handlers in James and Westbrook is being viewed as a negative, given Westbrook is more effective with the ball in his hands, I think it’ll allow the Lakers to get creative with some offensive sets between those two. As long as Westbrook is willing to be adaptable to playing a different way than he’s typically used to, I think this partnership could work in favor for both Westbrook and the Lakers.

2. Bulls will secure top-four finish in the East

Chicago is a difficult team to gauge entering the season after all of its offseason moves. On paper, the Bulls have three All-Stars in Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic, which typically means they should be viewed as one of the top teams in their conference. However, the moves to acquire DeRozan and Lonzo Ball were met with mild excitement as many wondered how all of those players would fit together. 

The Bulls answered some of those questions in the preseason to the tune of a 4-0 record. Granted it’s the preseason, so there’s always the potential of reading too much into things, but the concern about how LaVine and DeRozan — two ball-dominant players — would deal with not having the ball in their hands as much because of Ball’s presence wasn’t much of an issue in the preseason. 

Though LaVine is more accustomed to operating with the ball in his hands at all times, he looked comfortable in exhibition games moving without the ball, coming around off-ball screens and getting his points in different way than just off the dribble. He was also setting screens for DeRozan to get him free, showing that these two players can still get points without bringing the ball up the floor.

It may seem like a reach to think the Bulls will make the jump from missing the postseason altogether for the past four years, to finishing top four in the East with home-court advantage, but the success this team had in the preseason shows it may be better than people are projecting it to be. 

Chicago finished with the third-best offensive rating (111.1) in the preseason, first in defensive rating (91.3) the latter of which was a considerable concern for this team entering the season, and they finished third in assists per game (28), showing the great ball movement this team is capable of. I may be drinking the preseason punch too much, but I think there’s a scenario in which the Bulls surprise a lot of people and finish way higher than their preseason projections.

3. Heat will reach Eastern Conference finals

This may not be that bold of a prediction, considering we’re just a year removed from when the Heat made it to the NBA Finals. However, they’re not getting nearly the recognition they deserve heading into the season. Last year, Miami had to deal with a pretty significant COVID-19 outbreak, a shortened offseason after playing in the Finals and the absence of their best player in Jimmy Butler for a period of time. By the time the postseason rolled around, Miami was gassed and didn’t look at all like the team that was beating up on opponents in the bubble. 

Fast forward to now, and the Heat got their No. 1 target in free agency by bringing in veteran guard Kyle Lowry, added PJ Tucker fresh off a title with the Milwaukee Bucks and signed Duncan Robinson as well as Butler to contract extensions. To make this short, the Heat should be considered title contenders after a uncharacteristic season. 

Lowry will raise this team’s ceiling on both ends of the floor with his gritty defensive presence and leadership on offense. It will take some of the offensive workload off Butler’s shoulders, and we should see a more balanced attack with Lowry running the show. Bam Adebayo will benefit from running pick-and-rolls with Lowry, and Robinson will be waiting on the wings to sink 3s. Off the bench, the Heat will still have offensive spark plug Tyler Herro, who is coming off a season where he averaged 15.1 points a night off the bench, and Tucker’s defensive presence to anchor the second unit. 

Oh, and then there’s Victor Oladipo, who if he’s able to even get to 80 percent of what he was when he was an All-Star in Indiana, then the Heat will have yet another two-way weapon at their disposal. Miami has all the makings of a team capable of getting to the conference finals, and just like last time, they’re being underrated entering the season which will only give them more fuel to prove everyone wrong. 

The absence of Jamal Murray to start the season means that the Nuggets will have a hole on offense that Porter is capable of stepping into. Fresh off a rookie max extension, Porter is capable of averaging 20-plus points a night after averaging 19 points last season. His versatility on offense makes him a tough player to guard, too. He can sink shots from deep at a ridiculous clip (44.5 percent last season), his size allows him to bully his way into the paint and score efficiently at the rim (77 percent), and he can score efficiently from midrange as well (49 percent). 

He’s dangerous off the dribble or in catch-and-shoot situations, and his athleticism makes him an alley-oop threat. He did all of that as the third option for the Nuggets, taking just 13 shots a game. With Murray lost for at least the first few months of the season, imagine what Porter could do as the No. 2 option alongside reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.

It won’t be an easy task to make the All-Star Game in the loaded Western Conference, but if Porter continues his development and helps the Nuggets put wins on the board, than the league will have to give him that recognition. There’s also an easier avenue for him to make it with Kawhi Leonard out for majority of the season, giving Porter a route to make it as one of the forwards on the roster. After suffering a setback to his NBA career where a back injury kept him sidelined for his entire rookie season, Porter is on the verge of breaking through to All-Star status, and I won’t be surprised when it happens this season.

5. Kings will make the playoffs

Sacramento came incredibly close to making the play-in tournament a season ago, and although its historically never been smart to bet on the Kings, I have a ton of confidence in this young squad heading into the season. The reason for this confidence hinges on the talent of second-year guard Tyrese Haliburton and the quiet emergence of De’Aaron Fox. A backcourt of those two, while incredibly small and detrimental on defense, has the potential to be very dangerous on the offensive side of the ball. 

Last season Fox operated at an All-Star level, averaging 25.2 points, 7.2 assists and 3.5 rebounds, and remained one of the toughest guys to check when he’s attacking the rim. Haliburton was one of the best rookies a season ago, and with a promotion to the starting lineup, he should only progress. But those two alone aren’t the sole reason to be excited about Sacramento this season.

The Kings spent the summer re-signing emerging big man Richaun Holmes, who is coming off a career year (14.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.6 block per game), and ranked in the 86th percentile among all big men in effective field goal percentage (63.7 percent). His athleticism makes him the ideal pick-and-roll big for the likes of Fox, Haliburton and Buddy Hield, and he’s shown the ability to be efficient from mid range, too.

Then there’s Hield, who despite all the rumors about him wanting out of Sacramento, is still one of the best 3-point shooters in the league. When he catches fire from deep he’s capable of going for 30 points, and although a three-guard lineup featuring him, Haliburton and Fox isn’t ideal from a defensive perspective, it has the potential to put a ton of points on the board on offense. 

Offense certainly isn’t going to be a problem for the Kings, and I didn’t even mention veteran forward Harrison Barnes, who was as dependable as ever for Sacramento last season, so I expect this team to run up the scoreboard. Defense will be an issue, just as it was a season ago, but trading for Tristan Thompson gives the Kings a big body who can help limit points at the rim. 

I’m not saying this squad finishes in the top eight in the West, but I do see a world in which Sacramento makes the play-in, surprises the No. 7 or No. 8 team with its potent offense and secures one of the last two spots in the West. 





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