Today marks the official start of the 2021-22 NBA season.
With the NBA set to return tonight as the reigning NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks begin their title defense, it is time for another annual tradition of our own. The Denver Stiffs staff spent time making their predictions for what will happen in the upcoming season. From division races, to individual awards, to who will ultimately become 2021-22 champions, the writers and contributors for Stiffs put pen to paper and predict exactly what will come to pass.
Will the Bucks defend their title? Can Nikola Jokić defend his MVP award? What surprises will there be on this wild 2021-22 season?
Contributors for this piece included, in alphabetical order:
- Asher Levy - Contributing Writer
- Brandon Ewing - Deputy Site Manager
- Evan Fiala - Contributing Writer
- Gage Bridgford - Senior Writer
- Gordon Gross - Senior Writer
- Jena Garcia - Social Media Director
- Kayla Osby - Contributing Writer
- Peter Leensvaart - Contributing Writer
- Reid Howard - Moderator
- Ryan Blackburn - Site Manager
- Tommy Knowlton - Contributing Writer
Atlantic Division Winner — Brooklyn Nets, 11 votes
Analysis: Even though the Nets will be without Kyrie Irving for the foreseeable future, the roster for one of the leading title contenders remains flush with talent. Kevin Durant and James Harden remain MVP caliber, while Joe Harris, Bruce Brown, Blake Griffin, Patty Mills, and other Nets role players accompany them well. Though the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks should be good, the Philadelphia 76ers are probably out of the race due to the Ben Simmons situation, and the Toronto Raptors are nowhere close. The Nets simply have too much firepower and won’t be seriously challenged in the Atlantic by any of their division foes, barring major injury to another of their top stars and/or a more permanent absence of Irving.
Others to receive votes: None
Central Division Winner — Milwaukee Bucks, 11 votes
Analysis: Much like the Nets, the Bucks are in a tier of their own when it comes to the race for the Central division title. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and company are coming off their first NBA title as a group, and that often galvanizes newish contenders for the next few seasons. Whether that happens to the Bucks remains to be seen, but it doesn’t seem like the Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaiers, Detroit Pistons, and Indiana Pacers are going to put up much resistance.
Others to receive votes: None
Southeast Division Winner — Atlanta Hawks 6 votes
Analysis: This division was nearly an even split among the Stiffs staff, but the Hawks ultimately prevailed. Led by Trae Young, the Hawks burst onto the seen last year, outlasting other playoff contenders and upsetting a flawed Sixers team on the way to the Conference Finals. They did so without De’Andre Hunter, a promising fourth overall pick, and the entire roster still has an upward trajectory with so many young pieces hoping to improve. Young, Hunter, Kevin Huerter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Cam Reddish, John Collins, Clint Capela, and Onyeka Okongwu all represent a young, improving group that should excel in the regular season. The Heat, though they have plenty of star talent, are built more for a playoff run than the regular season.
Others to receive votes: Miami Heat (5)
Southwest Division Winner — Dallas Mavericks, 7 votes
Analysis: Though the Mavericks and former head coach Rick Carlisle decided to part ways in the offseason, they still have young prodigy Luka Dončić to lead the way on the court. Joining him is a less than inspiring supporting cast, along with a variable at head coach in Jason Kidd, but Dončić should still be enough to outlast the competition. The Memphis Grizzlies are a rising power headed by Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson and should provide some competition for the leading spot.
Others to receive votes: Memphis Grizzlies (4)
Pacific Division Winner — Tie, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns, 5 votes each
Analysis: The only tie on the board comes from the Pacific division. Our writing staff was split evenly on the Lakers and Suns, with several variables that will make the entire division extremely volatile. On one hand, the Lakers, with the addition of Russell Westbrook, are perhaps more volatile and more potent in the regular season. On the other hand, the Suns, with the retention of their entire roster, should pick up wins consistently. Both teams are reasonable answers, as is a hail mary on the Golden State Warriors, who are potent in their own right and should be bolstered by a stronger roster this season.
Others to receive votes: Golden State Warriors (1)
Northwest Division Winner — Denver Nuggets, 6 votes
Analysis: Though this is a Nuggets blog, our staff was evenly split on whether the Nuggets or the Utah Jazz would win the Northwest Division. The Jazz were extremely strong during the 2020-21 season and should prove to be strong once again. Still, the staff believes in the Nuggets and in Nikola Jokić carrying the torch without Jamal Murray for most of the season. Michael Porter Jr. is primed for a breakout season, while Aaron Gordon and Will Barton should provide steadiness throughout the year. Though the bench has questions, they have potential answers in the form of P.J. Dozier, Jeff Green, Bones Hyland, and Monte Morris when Murray ultimately returns to the floor.
Others to receive votes: Utah Jazz (5)
End of season Awards
Most Valuable Player — Giannis Antetokounmpo, 4 votes
Analysis: The staff was fairly split on MVP voting this year, especially with only one vote for Nikola Jokić to repeat. Instead, the consensus was that the MVP race would be fairly convoluted with Giannis becoming the ultimate leader in the clubhouse. After two regular season MVPs and one Finals MVP in the last three seasons, it’s fair to assume that one of the most impactful players in the NBA in his prime will be the leading competitor for the award once again. Combine that with the fact that the Bucks should be one of the very best teams in the NBA and the possibility that Giannis collects another award becomes even stronger.
Others to receive votes: Steph Curry (2), Luka Dončić (2), Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokic, LeBron James
Defensive Player of the Year — Giannis Antetokounmpo, 5 votes
Analysis: This was another award that was fairly split among incumbent options (Giannis, Rudy Gobert) and some newer choices. Gobert has won three of the last four seasons with Giannis winning in the gap year, and the staff expects Giannis to win once again. There are a distinct lack of competitors at the highest level, though each of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons received a vote. The Sixers are in a very awkward spot, but they will probably have an excellent defense once again with high level talent. If a Defensive Player of the Year comes from someone other than Giannis or Gobert, it will probably be a Sixer.
Others to receive votes: Rudy Gobert (3), Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball
Rookie of the Year — Jalen Green, 5 votes
Analysis: This season’s rookie of the year race should be very interesting. The two top competitors with the largest opportunity should be the top two picks, Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green. With Cunningham sharing touches with Jerami Grant in Detroit, the staff decided that Green was the most likely candidate to win the award. He’s going to have plenty of scoring chances, and after playing for the G League Ignite team last season, he should be prepared for attacking defenses as a playmaker this year.
Others to receive votes: Cade Cunningham (3), Jalen Suggs (2), Bone Hyland
Most Improved Player — Michael Porter Jr., 5 votes
Analysis: Last season, the staff voted for Michael Porter Jr. collectively, and he finished third in the MIP race. This year, they believe he will complete the run and progress even further. Porter has an excellent opportunity for improving his scoring and playmaking profile as Jamal Murray recovers from an ACL tear. There are other players with an opportunity to break out as well, but none on a team as likely to win a lot of games as Denver.
Others to receive votes: Jordan Poole (2), Darius Garland (2), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Anthony Edwards
Coach of the Year — Nate McMillan, 5 votes
Analysis: When Nate McMillan took over for Lloyd Pierce during the middle of the season last year, the Atlanta Hawks seemingly flipped a switch. They rode a newfound momentum all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals and were only stopped by the eventual NBA champion Bucks. The staff believes they will use that momentum to propel themselves to a top seed in the East this year, and McMillan will be given at least some of the credit. Taylor Jenkins of the Memphis Grizzlies was the only other candidate to receive multiple votes.
Others to receive votes: Taylor Jenkins (2), Michael Malone, Steve Nash, Erik Spoelstra, Billy Donovan
2021 Playoff predictions
Eastern Conference Finals Winner — Brooklyn Nets, 6 votes
Analysis: The Nets are one of the most unique teams in the NBA. From the star power they possess to the drama that follows them daily, it would be understandable for our staff to pick for or against them. The majority decided to pick them to advance over the Bucks though. There’s always a possibility that Kyrie Irving returns in time for the Finals, and there’s always a strong possibility that they don’t even need him anyway. Durant and Harden could simply be good enough, and they were very close last year. The Bucks could very well repeat, and the Hawks are lurking in the background, but for now, it’s Brooklyn that remains in the driver’s seat.
Others to receive votes: Milwaukee Bucks (4), Atlanta Hawks
Most common Conference Finals opponent: Milwaukee Bucks
Western Conference Finals Winner — Los Angeles Lakers, 6 votes
Analysis: Last season, nobody saw the Phoenix Suns rising to the very pinnacle of the Western Conference. Injuries to contenders aided their rise, but it was ultimately their steadiness and potency that helped them reach the NBA Finals. This year, the staff doesn’t have the same faith in them, instead voting on the Lakers and Nuggets to be the most likely Finals teams. If Russell Westbrook proves to be helpful for the Lakers this yer, they already have a championship caliber foundation of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. If Jamal Murray returns to close to full health, the Nuggets also have a championship foundation behind MVP Nikola Jokić and young star Michael Porter Jr. leading the way.
Others to receive votes: Denver Nuggets (4), Phoenix Suns
Most common Conference Finals opponent: Denver Nuggets
NBA Finals Winner — Brooklyn Nets, 5 votes
Analysis: This year’s Finals is likely to be a crazy one. Though the Nets were prohibitive favorites before their internal decision about Irving as a part-time player, they still have the talent to be the favorite without him. The race certainly becomes more interesting though, and the Nuggets were the team to receive the second most votes. The Bucks and Lakers round out the list of title threats according to our staff, though the race seems to be pretty open this year. The Nets may be the favorites, but they aren’t invulnerable.
Others to receive votes: Denver Nuggets (3), Milwaukee Bucks (2), Los Angeles Lakers
Most common NBA Finals opponent: Los Angeles Lakers
NBA Finals Most Valuable Player — Kevin Durant, 4 votes
Analysis: Though James Harden did accumulate a vote for this award, the most common answer was Durant, who many perceive to be the best player in the NBA today. His recovery from a torn achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals to become the player that he is just a little over two years later is absolutely remarkable. If he stays healthy for the entire season, the Nets will be in great position to turn their dreams into reality. If it isn’t anyone on the Nets though, Nikola Jokić were the only other players to receive multiple votes.
Others to receive votes: Nikola Jokić (3), Giannis Antetokounmpo (2), LeBron James, James Harden
Stay tuned for tomorrow’s 2021-22 Denver Nuggets specific predictions.