The 10 hopefuls for the NBA ring

No one would have bet on a Finals with the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns before the start of last season. Those of Arizona had not played playoffs since 2010 and those of Wisconsin seemed closer to the disintegration of the project Mike Budenholzer / Giannis Antetokounmpo that of the glory that he achieved with his first ring since 1971. A year earlier, practically no one would have played it for a collision between the Lakers and the Heat. The latter weren’t even in much of a stakes when competition in the Florida bubble restarted. And the Lakers … they had LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but they started the 2019-20 season with many doubts about their rotation and, theoretically, well behind some Clippers who were the great candidate by consensus for months. And in the previous Finals, in 2019, another unexpected champion was proclaimed just weeks before: Toronto Raptors.

So it is almost impossible to get the guesses right before the start of the course, from the real fire, to see where and how each one is. Before the weeks go by, let’s find out how each other’s chemistry is doing and let’s see who comes out crunch and who avoids the playful demon of injuries. But, a priori, a third of the League can be separated, ten franchises that have legitimate options, or the right to feel so, to be champions.

These They are the ten applicants to the ring, in descending order. First, the one with the fewest options. At number 1, the big favorite:

10. PHILADELPHIA 76ERS. A gigantic asterisk, an Australian one. Ben Simmons. The player-Sixers nexus was broken in the traumatic elimination of the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7 of the Eastern semifinals. Without him, the Sixers change the format of their current project. If they transfer it, the judgment will depend on what they get in return. If they stay as they are now… they seem less than the Bucks and Nets in the East. Joel Embiid is already 27 years old, he will turn 28 in fact before the next playoffs. And with him is always the matter of how long his prime, given his history with injuries. He will continue to be an aspiring MVP, the leader of a fearsome defense (even without Simmons) and the benchmark of an attack with shooters (Curry, Green, Korkmaz…) and in which Tobias Harris usually gets rid of at the least opportune moments.

9. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS. Another gigantic asterisk: Kawhi Leonard’s knee injury in the last playoffs not only left the team with no options then (although they played very well and fought to the end without him) rather it conditions this course. If he doesn’t come back at all, it’s impossible to imagine a champion Clippers. If he does it already close to the playoffs and in need of filming, similar. But if he shortens deadlines, comes back on time and is fit in the playoffs … His history of lower body injuries forces him to think, in any case, in terms of maximum caution. The Clippers, meanwhile, will be tough, tough to beat, with Paul George at the helm.

8. DENVER NUGGETS. Another injury conditions everything: Jamal Murray was struck down on April 12. His knee left the Nuggets in a no-man’s-land when they seemed to have assembled a team that could really do something great.. Following Aaron Gordon’s arrival in the winter market, the first unit (Murray, Will Barton, Gordon, Michael Porter, and MVP Nikola Jokic) were scorching rivals with ratings from another galaxy. As in the case of Kawhi, the lateness of the injury and last season’s schedule forces one to think cautiously at the very least. But with Murray back on time and in shape, the Nuggets may be one of the best teams in the playoffs. Improving defense would help too, of course.

7. MIAMI HEAT. Last season was tremendously disappointing in Miami. The magic of the bubble disappeared and the East finalist was very far from that level, with injuries to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo and a very weak level of players like Dragic and Herro (and little contribution from Oladipo, Ariza, Iguodala, Bradley, Harkless …). But for this season, the Heat have been ultra aggressive. They’ve taken PJ Tucker and Kyle Lowry and pulled a wallet to spread Butler and retain Duncan Robinson. They have a deep block that’s perfect for the Spoelstra style, and it can be the Eastern trench team sneaking into whatever hole opens up as soon as the others get in trouble. Who wants to face a quintet in the playoffs with Lowry, Butler, Robinson, Tucker and Adebayo, joined by Herro, Oladipo, Strus, Dedmon, Markieff…?

6. UTAH JAZZ. In a way, the Jazz dream is to be the West Bucks. The team that after several seasons at an extraordinary level in the regular season, also manages to make the great leap forward in the playoffs. In the last five years they have only dropped once from 60% of wins in the regular phase, but they have not played any conference final. Their bet was to keep the block, and they succeeded by giving Mike Conley $ 68 million for three years. So they will try again in their usual format, with the order of Quin Snyder and the hierarchy of Donovan Mitchell in attack and Rudy Gobert in defense. Rudy Gay arrives to try to provide solutions that so far they have not had in the playoffs, where they will have to show that they can be more than what we have seen in recent seasons.

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5. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS. Last season they crashed twice (Lakers, Grizzlies) in the play in and Stephen Curry, despite having had an absolutely extraordinary year, watched the playoffs on television. Part of the solution lies in Klay Thompson, who is aiming for a December comeback after two full blank seasons. If the shooting guard is still near his best, the Warriors can lead a furious charge: Iguodala is back, already very veteran, and Otto Porter seems like a perfect match for Curry, Klay, and Draymond Green. Jordan Poole is an increasingly valuable rotation player, Wiggins continues to work on his IQ and the question is how to develop two young talents while thinking about competing big now: James Wiseman and Jonathan Kuminga.

4. PHOENIX SUNS. The champion of the West and a team that keeps its block intact, with Chris Paul’s continuity guaranteed at a gold price: four years and 120 million (the last two years not fully guaranteed) for a 36-year-old guard (one of the best in history, yes). In the bottom of the closet, Elfrid Payton and Landry Shamet arrive, and you will feel the loss of Dario Saric, who was seriously injured in the Finals, where the Suns went 2-0 … and won no more. The first title in the history of the franchise is the great challenge, again in the hands of Paul, the fantastic Devin Booker and two rising young men like Mikal Bridges and a DeAndre Ayon whose no-contract extension plans like a strange shadow on this project, which found the right direction last season.

3. LOS ANGELES LAKERS. How to locate the Lakers? A team that aims for the absence of grays, overwhelming success or extraordinary collapse. They have enough red flags to think about the latter: too much seniority (LeBron James at the helm), the question of how useful a Russell Westbrook can be who needs some re-education and the usual injuries of Anthony Davis. But if it stays healthy and LeBron has at least one last great course left (and that has seemed in preseason), and if the pieces fit together … then the Lakers could be the big favorite of the West. They have more shooting, more points for attack and, in theory, much less defensive strength than the past seasons. We will see.

2. MILWAUKEE BUCKS. Here is the champion. With the block almost intact. The almost It’s PJ Tucker, who’s gone to Miami Heat. An important player whose absence will fill, in part, the return of guard Donte DiVincenzo, who did not play the Finals due to injury. Bobby Portis, an unexpected hero, renewed, and Grayson Allen and the returned George Hill. But everything will be, once again, in the hands of the big three: Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton as squires of a Giannis Antetokounmpo who played a legendary Finals and who has room to continue improving. That scares. He’s going for his third MVP… now for his second ring. To nothing that things fail in the Nets …

1. BROOKLYN NETS. A team impossible to decipher, different from all the pharaonic projects the NBA has seen. It is, among one thing and another, the third season of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the Big Apple. But the forward missed the first due to the injury that he dragged from the last Finals with the Warriors and Kyrie has been unhealthy … and now he begins to be separated by the mess of his non-vaccination. Many doubts, but the certainty that only with Durant and James Harden there is already a super candidate for the ring, whatever happens with Kyrie. Because Durant is a divine gamer and because the wardrobe is luxurious: Joe Harris, Blake Griffin, Patty Mills, Jevon Carter, Bruce Brown, Paul Millsap, LaMarcus Aldridge (who parks his retirement), Nic Claxton… Last season, Kyrie and Harden’s injuries twisted everything. And yet Durant came within a hair of charging, almost alone, to the Bucks in the second round. If all goes well in Brooklyn, these Nets should be very favorites for ring 2022.

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