Sam Smith's 2021-22 NBA Final Standings Predictions

Sam sees the Chicago Bulls returning to the playoffs in the NBA's 75th season.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

Body

So Nets and Lakers? We're supposed to accept that with Kyrie Irving's drama and the Lakers with nine regulars at least 32 years old and it doesn't appear a Benjamin Button in the group?

The NBA for its 75th birthday is returning to a full, 82-game season, which suggests the veteran Lakers and Nets players will be pacing themselves more than any Pacers. So it seems like another wide open almost-worst-to-first season for some team like the Suns into the Finals last season and the Bucks perhaps one shoe size between a rebuild and the championship. One of the most significant issues is who is there. Attendance in the modern NBA is a skill.

And that doesn't include All-Star players who should be there like the 76ers Ben Simmons and the Nets Irving. Klay Thompson still is out with the Warriors, Kawhi Leonard with the Clippers and Jamal Murray with the Nuggets. Victor Oladipo awaits a return in Miami. That's a lot of missing balance of power.

So there could be power shifts with Kyle Lowry, Markieff Morris and P.J. Tucker in Miami, DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Nikola Vucevic in Chicago, Dennis Schroder, Enes Kanter and Al Horford in Boston, Spencer Dinwiddie and Montrezl Harrell in Washington, Andre Drummond in Philadelphia, Rudy Gay with the Jazz, Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker with the Knicks, Otto Porter with the Warriors, Rodney Hood with the Bucks, Kelly Oubre with the Hornets, Doug McDermott and Thaddeus Young with the Spurs and Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk, Rajon Rondo and with the Lakers. It's supposedly not true the Lakers tried to get Jerry West and Oscar Robertson to come out of retirement.

So who are the contenders other than the Lakers and Nets?

The defending champion Bucks, of course. The 76ers and Heat in the Eastern Conference? Which finally once again is the power conference. The Hawks, Celtics, Bulls? That's probably four or five Eastern teams that could reach the Finals. The Western Conference is dominated by so many injuries. So it's the Lakers, Jazz and Suns. What if Thompson returns to form for the Warriors? They could make a late push for the Finals. It's tough to see much this season from Denver's Murray, though they retained Aaron Gordon and added Jeff Green. Can Luka drag Porzingis back from the brink in Dallas? So perhaps another five possibilities with no more certainty. Someone unexpected could be playing for a championship this season and it wouldn't surprise anyone.

EASTERN CONFERENCE:

Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving

1) Brooklyn Nets. Last season: 48-24 (2nd). Lost to Bucks 4-3 in conference semifinals.

They seem like the most loaded and favorite again, like they were last season. But things happen. Last season it was injuries. This season it's the Kyrie saga for now. Is this a team that needs a shot in the arm? Which obscures how much they loaded up with Patty Mills, Paul Millsap, James Johnson and LaMarcus Aldridge.

2) Milwaukee Bucks. Last season: 46-26 (3rd). Won NBA championship in six games over Phoenix.

They're back! And without the questions on whether they can in the playoffs. Popular Bobby Portis returns with the addition of Rodney Hood and bringing back George Hill. Confidence make you tougher and Giannis doesn't rest. Finally getting tougher than day old brats.

3) Miami Heat. Last season: 40-32 (6th). Swept by Bucks in first round.

Jimmy Butler missed a lot of games, which he actually does pretty much every season. But they added a lot of help with Lowry and if Oladipo can return….they'll need another ball. They're going to shoot a lot, lot, lot of threes and see what happens. They seem formidable.

4) Philadelphia 76ers. Last season: 49-23 (1st). Lost in seven to Hawks in conference semifinals.

That shocking playoff upset began the Ben Simmons epic that we assume gets resolved with at the least some additions for the 76ers. With Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris, that still should make them a contender with some good, young players who'll get a chance. Some processes last longer than others.

5) Chicago Bulls. Last season: 31-41 (11th). Missed play-in.

This is a big jump, but it is the largest roster overhaul in the league. And with veteran All-Stars. There'll be talk about chemistry and meshing and such. But in this offensive-oriented NBA they should match anyone. They need not be defensive about the defense.

6) Atlanta Hawks. Last season: 41-31 (5th). Lost in six to Bucks in conference finals.

Their playoffs was a revelation until Trae Young was hurt. They were creeping along out of playoff contention halfway through last season until a coaching change and magical turnaround. They aren't sneaking up. Was it real. Or Memorex? What, no more CDs?

7) Boston Celtics. Last season: 36-36 (7th). Lost in five in first round after getting through the play-in.

There's a new coach when we all still thought Brad Stevens was a genius. Al Horford is back from what we thought was retirement and it still seems like Tatum and Brown play my turn, your turn. But they make a lot of it. No Jabari Parker. So what will be their excuse?

8) New York Knicks. Last season: 41-31 (8th). Lost in five to the Hawks in the first round.

Heck, last year I didn't even have them making the playoffs. It's still tough to figure them. Can Kemba Walker regain health for the first time in several years. Julius Randle again? Did you see him in the playoffs? They've got some shooting now, but will Thibs let them?

9) Washington Wizards. Last season: 34-38 (8th). Lost in five in first round to 76ers.

And off went Russell Westbrook to join LeBron. Bradley Beal still is around, though he'll be in trade speculation with a slow start. They made some interesting moves adding Spencer Dinwiddie, who will explain bitcoin to them (and me, too), Aaron Holiday, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell. And old buddy Daniel Gafford has been a defensive revelation with Thomas Bryant to return.

10) Toronto Raptors. Last season: 27-45 (12th). Missed playoffs.

They lost Kyle Lowry, but there's still a core of guys left from the championship team and they actually get to play a game back in Canada. That's said to be a positive, though it couldn't have been that bad in Florida last January. They gave up for the draft pick last season, but with VanVleet, Anunoby, Siakam and if Goran Dragic sticks around they could be a surprise to move up into the top eight.

11) Indiana Pacers. Last season: 34-38 (9th). Lost in play-in.

If they didn't have all those guys out missing Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren, then Rick Carlisle might have done something. Myles Turner is healthy to team with Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon. It doesn't seem like enough.

12) Charlotte Hornets. Last season: 33-39 (10th). Lost in play-in.

It was a brutal preseason for them with injuries. But they're tied for first now. They were the surprise the first half last season and disappointing thereafter. A lot depends on Gordon Hayward, who may be the only guy who should have stayed in Utah, though with LaMelo Ball they'll be interesting.

13) Cleveland Cavaliers. Last season: 22-50 (13th). Missed playoffs.

It's a wild and wacky roster with the addition of another big with Lauri Markkanen and rookie Evan Mobley and Kevin Love still around. Collin Sexton supposedly isn't popular and you figure there's a move to be made if Joakim Noah won't take that chamber of commerce job.

14) Orlando Magic. Last season: 21-51 (14th). Missed playoffs.

It's mostly who's back with Jonathan Isaac, Markelle Fultz, Mo Bamba and Cole Anthony. It's a fun watch for Bulls fans with Wendell Carter Jr., Robin Lopez, E'Twaun Moore and Michael-Carter Williams. There's also Gary Harris, Terrence Ross and rookie Jalen Suggs. You'll need programs,

15) Detroit Pistons. Last season: 20-52 (15th). Missed playoffs.

Tough to see them escaping the bottom. No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham missed the preseason with an ankle injury and 2020 lottery pick Killian Hayes rarely played last season. Their other rookies were better, but it's a young team with lots of questions, few answers and no multiple choice. Just fill-in.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell

1) Utah Jazz. Last season: 52-20 (1st). Lost to Clippers in six in conference semifinals.

Shoulda, coulda, woulda. They looked like a Finals team until Donovan Mitchell was hurt. They're about the same this time in a much weaker Western Conference with more teams that look like they can't make the playoffs than can. If Mike Conley can stay healthy, if, if, if.

2) Phoenix Suns. Last season: 51-21 (2nd). Lost to Bucks in Finals in six.

They're no sneaking up this time with Chris Paul resigned and Devin Booker showing more positive signs. Another year older for Deandre Ayton and all that. They probably have the most balanced starting five in the conference and missed Dario Saric, which isn't written or said often.

3) Denver Nuggets. Last season: 47-25 (3rd). Swept by Suns in conference semifinals.

They'd be contending for the top spot if Murray weren't injured. But with a late season ACL it's unlikely the Nuggets see much of Murray this season. But they've got the MVP, some big guys who can shoot and a relentless nature. Not a team to be counted out.

4) Los Angeles Lakers. Last season: 42-30 (7th). Lost to Suns in six in first round.

They're the West favorites for most, and I can understand the Westbrook addition since LeBron and Anthony Davis figure to amble a bit through the regular season with injuries. Russ never ambles. There's a lot of famous names if not lately famous games. You never discount LeBron, but it's no slow walk to these Finals for them.

5) Memphis Grizzlies. Last season: 38-34 (8th). Lost to Jazz in five in first round.

They seem like (maybe) the next big thing with Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. recovered from injuries. It seemed like Jonas Valanciunas was a better fit for them than Steven Adams, but they've got a tough group of young players who fit around the impressive Morant.

6) Golden State Warriors. Last season: 39-33 (9th). Lost in play-in.

Somehow you figure they'll figure things out. It's suddenly an eclectic roster filled with high draft picks and awaiting Klay Thompson's return. The belief always was they'd cash in the picks and prospects for veteran talent. They never have, but Curry keeps them competitive and they've still got shooters.

7) Dallas Mavericks. Last season: 42-30 (5th). Lost in seven to Clippers in first round.

At some point with all the accolades and admiration, Luka Doncic is going to have to at least have a first round home court advantage. It seems it's on Kristaps Porzingis to be more than he ever is. They can't seem to find reliable support for Luka, who does hold the ball a lot lot lot.

8) Los Angeles Clippers. Last season: 47-25 (4th). Lost to Suns in six in conference finals.

And now no Kawhi. He had ACL surgery in July and, to be fair, it takes everyone a year or so. And he's never been in a rush to play even when he's not injured. It seems unlikely he plays this season. Paul George, it's on you. They had a Reggie Jackson sighting in the playoffs, and he's back along with Eric Bledsoe. But you know about small samples.

9) Portland Trailblazers. Last season: 42-30 (6th). Lost to Nuggets in six in first round.

This season is about the Dame watch. Not so much Dame time, but watch to see if he wants to watch from elsewhere. They're trying a new coach, the other Nance and even Tony Snell. But it's still difficult to find that third scorer and C.J. McCollum remains a regular for speculation in a Ben Simmons maneuver.

10) Minnesota Timberwolves. Last season: 23-49 (13th). Missed playoffs.

Karl-Anthony Towns is past a season of personal despair, D'Angelo Russell is healthy, Anthony Edwards knows who Alex Rodriguez is and Malik Beasley is out of jail. Talk about ready. They've actually got talent with pesky Pat Beverley on board. But losing becomes such a habit.

11) Sacramento Kings. Last season: 31-41 (12th). Missed playoffs.

Speaking of losing. They haven't made the playoffs since 2006. Now that's difficult with all these draft picks. Which is also the last time they won at least 40 games. Probably some bad referee calls. They've got some good guards and remain in the Ben Simmons fever. Marvin Bagley says he's ready now. Yes, really.

12) New Orleans Pelicans. Last season: 31-41 (11th). Missed playoffs.

This obviously is all about Zion Williamson, who quietly had more surgery this summer. Not a good start. It seems they let Lonzo Ball go so Zion could have the ball all the time with an occasional Nickeil Alexander-Walker sighting. It seems like an uncomfortable mix. Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple from the Bulls are their adults, but we know that doesn't mean playoffs.

13) San Antonio Spurs. Last season: 33-39 (10th). Lost in play-in.

This could be the team that drives Pop from coaching. They've got some former Bulls with Doug McDermott, Thad Young and Al-Farouq Aminu, and some new spare parts like Bryn Forbes and Zach Collins. Popovich always makes his teams better that the sum of their parts. He's got some work to do.

14) Houston Rockets. Last season: 17-55 (15th). Missed playoffs.

They sent John Wall home, and now everyone else is going to be shooting with rookie Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr. and Eric Gordon. So that's where Daniel Theis went.

15) Oklahoma City Thunder. Last season: 22-50 (14th). Missed playoffs.

If only you could watch future draft picks play. It's never clear why teams are celebrated for accumulating so many futures who may not have a future. The theory is to turn them in for something. So far they can't or won't. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems like the real thing, which he may be just in time to be someone's free agent. That's the risk of those long term rebuilds. By the time you're ready your guys may be ready to leave.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

NEXT UP:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter