As 2022 begins and the NBA nears important markers, some predictions for the remainder of the season.
As of today, here’s how this All-Star ballot looks. (In the interest of full disclosure, this writer does have a media ballot to select the All-Star starters. And if a player is a jerk, anti-vaxxer or has even misled the media on his vaccinated status, it won’t affect this ballot.)
So with a few weeks to go until the Feb. 20 game in Cleveland, here goes:
Backcourt: DeMar DeRozan, Bulls; Zach LaVine, Bulls
Why not? The best team in the East has weathered injuries and COVID-19, yet sits atop the conference. DeRozan should be on some MVP ballots (more on that later), but LaVine isn’t just along for the ride. Both equally explosive and downright scary for the rest of the East, they’ve found a way to maximize the best of themselves while not stepping on the toes of the other. LaVine is shooting a ridiculous 42% on over seven 3-point attempts a game. DeRozan is a fourth-quarter, cold-blooded stalker. Apologies to Trae Young and LaMelo Ball, but that’s about it. This feels clear-cut.
Frontcourt: Kevin Durant, Nets; Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks; Joel Embiid, 76ers
Antetokounmpo spotted Suns coach Monty Williams in the hallway following Game 6 of the Finals, wanting to run it back. But how about another run of Bucks-Nets, considering the two best players in the game could very well be himself and Durant? Antetokounmpo (27.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists) looks improved on the margins and he’s keeping the Bucks within striking distance of everything in the East. Durant has actually looked better than ever, all things considered. Leading the league in scoring again (29.7 points) while operating as a facilitator (5.7 assists) and rebounder (7.7) — the same way there’s this ridiculous conversation about LeBron James not being a “scorer,” there’s actually one on Durant being just that as opposed to a complete player.
And Embiid, poor Embiid, right? The Ben Simmons saga. His COVID scare. Doc Rivers missing time due to COVID. But since Embiid's return on Nov. 27, he’s been a terror: 29.3 points on 49/41/83 splits, 11.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks.
The 76ers still feel a tier below the East elite, but it isn’t Embiid’s fault.
Backcourt: Stephen Curry, Warriors; Ja Morant, Grizzlies
Curry is easy. He’s shooting below 40 from three for the first time in his career (not counting his five games in 2019-20), but that’s semantics. He’s in the MVP conversation and the engine behind everything Golden State has done and will do for the next five months. Morant over Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell and even Luka Doncic will probably turn heads. But it’s an endorsement of what he’s done and not an indictment of the four, who are all deserving. It feels like a changing of the guard with Morant (25.1 points, 6.7 assists, 5.7 rebounds), an announcement that he’s more than a party-crasher in the West, that he’s an agent of change. It’s like he watched the best of Allen Iverson and Russell Westbrook, but decided to use that burst judiciously compared to all the time.
Frontcourt: LeBron James, Lakers; Nikola Jokic, Nuggets; Rudy Gobert, Jazz
James is putting on a playoff push because the Lakers can’t stay afloat any other way. Waiting on Anthony Davis will only leave you waiting, so James (28.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.5 assists) will do it and do all of it. He’s a model of consistency after his early injury, and is shooting 38% from three upon his return. Jokic is better than his MVP run last season, and it’s hard to imagine Denver asking him to do more with the absences of Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray (although Murray is on the mend). He’s a blend of relentlessness and efficiency, two things that don’t seem to go together — but they do for Jokic. Gobert plays within himself, and although the Jazz are nowhere near the sexy team in the West, they are as consistent, year-over-year, as anyone. He anchors that defense, back in the conversation for DPOY and that’s no slight to anyone. His rim protection is critical.
Someone unexpected will crash the MVP party
The MVP conversation has been pretty muted thus far — unless you’d like to count COVID-19 — with Curry, Durant, Jokic and perhaps Antetokounmpo garnering some attention as of late. It’s cute to talk about James, but the Lakers have been a mess up until very recently. But whether it’s DeRozan or the possibility of Doncic rounding himself into shape (keyword: “rounding”), it feels like teams won’t be easing themselves into the playoffs after this current COVID surge wears off. Jimmy Butler was putting up huge numbers for the Heat before his tailbone injury last month. Paul George was keeping the Clippers afloat before his UCL shut him down for a couple months. It feels like there’s another turn or two left before the MVP race is fully formed, and with the ballot allowing writers and broadcasters to have five names, there’s space for evolution.
Klay Thompson won’t look like Game 6 Klay, but he won’t have to — until May
The NBA has changed so much since Thompson’s first debilitating injury in the 2019 Finals. Then you add a second one. Yes, it’s perhaps some rest on a body that went through five extended runs to the Finals, but that’s a lot of atrophy from the surgeries, too. If he can be a respectable spot-up shooter who gives Curry a little more daylight and less attention — fewer forced shots — he’s worth more than his stats will indicate. He’ll play only 20 minutes a night upon returning, a slow build to not disrupt what the Warriors have built while also conserving Thompson’s effectiveness. The Warriors are built where he won’t be needed as much, with Andrew Wiggins as a wing defender and Jordan Poole as a scorer to play off Curry. There’s a curiosity how far that will take this iteration of the Warriors, though. It should be more than enough to get them through the first two rounds, but if they are to meet the Phoenix Suns in the West finals, they’ll need all hands on deck — which doesn’t mean a prime Klay Thompson but one who can be depended upon six months from now.
Is that too much to ask, considering the Suns specialize in not beating themselves? Sure, but it could be the best route for the Warriors to get to the Finals — a playoff-ready, never-scared Thompson who could have shaken just enough of the rust off to be the best version of himself at this stage.
Kyrie Irving will be everything you see, and all that you believe, for better or worse
It’s easy to make a mockery of Kyrie Irving when he’s not playing basketball. The silly statements, the inconsistencies, the abandoning of teammates after he played as big a part of this Brooklyn operation coming to be as anyone.
But he is dazzling on the floor, and assuming health — which can never be assumed when talking about an oft-injured player — he’ll remind those why many feel he’s worth the trouble, even if the part-time situation is untenable for the long run.
Make no mistake: If six of the Nets’ 12 losses weren’t against the upper crust of the league (Chicago, Phoenix, Golden State, Milwaukee, Miami), the temptation to bring Irving back wouldn’t be as strong and Kevin Durant wouldn’t have signed off on it. Four of those losses were of the blowout variety and the so-called explosive Nets had a tough time mustering offense outside of Durant’s usual brilliance.
So while this feels like Irving “won” on the surface, it feels like a business arrangement for as long as the Nets can stomach it and players can adjust — mainly James Harden, it seems.
Unless Irving gets the vaccine, which seems highly unlikely, it puts the Nets in a precarious position come playoff time. Will they angle to be a lower seed to maximize Irving’s availability in a series against Miami, Milwaukee or Chicago? It’s dangerous to play with the basketball gods and even a worse thought of what team chemistry, roles and comfortability look like when it all changes on a nightly basis.
Let’s see how long this lasts before someone inevitably steps on one of those land mines.
A big trade will happen
The shuffling of players in and out of the health and safety protocols has halted meaningful conversations around the league, it seems, but at some point, business will be business. Just spitballing here, but if it’s true that the Indiana Pacers have decided to hold onto Domantas Sabonis and shop Myles Turner a bit more actively, would they move him to the New York Knicks for Mitchell Robinson? The Knicks haven’t extended him (yet) and as a second-round pick in 2018, he’s bound for unrestricted free agency this summer. He comes with injury concerns, of course, but he’s young and could be cost-effective for the Pacers if they’re looking to get younger and unload salary.
The Sacramento Kings have the backcourt logjam, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see De’Aaron Fox moved to a better situation — along with Marvin Bagley III. Speaking of tough choices, can the Boston Celtics keep going with the tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown? The Celtics could be patient and let these two continue to develop as score-first wings, but if either is your best player, it doesn’t seem to get you far in this version of the Eastern Conference. Several executives told Yahoo Sports they’re waiting on Brad Stevens, head of basketball operations, to make a move on one of them.
Cade Cunningham is the real deal
It was difficult to evaluate Cunningham initially, with no preseason due to an ankle injury, and it took him a while to find his footing. But even before his recent COVID absence, he started to show big signs: finishing better around the rim despite not being an explosive athlete, gaining his footing from deep and making plays without forcing the action.
Since December, he’s averaged 18 points, 6.4 assists and 5.5 rebounds, shooting 41% from the field.
His slender build will bulk up as time goes on (he’s just 20), but it should be more an incremental process than turning from Bruce Banner to the Incredible Hulk in one year. Creating space off the dribble and eliminating the crowds will be a huge step in his development, as well as being able to play off the ball and with other shot creators, to take that responsibility off him.
He had some mature defensive plays against the Milwaukee Bucks in his first game back, bodying up on Jrue Holiday and recovering to block a 3-point shot that triggered a fast break. Saddiq Bey’s growth as an offensive hub will aid Cunningham more than it seems on the surface, especially as the Pistons roster is expected to shift and move over the course of Cunningham’s rookie deal.
It’s way too early to call Cunningham a superstar or franchise player, in part because those terms are used way too liberally nowadays. But it’s premature to dismiss him from turning into that.
But Evan Mobley is changing lives
That said, it’s not too early to say Evan Mobley has superstar written all over him. It’s not hard to squint and see Tim Duncan, especially when one considers Duncan spent four years at Wake Forest and Mobley was at USC for one year, skewing the visual.
But Mobley’s adjustment has been quicker and more fluid than anyone could’ve expected, and although his numbers (14.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.8 blocks) aren’t eye-popping, his game is. He’s not getting overpowered by bigger and stronger players. He’s not pushing anyone around, not yet, but he’s holding his own — which is the best-case scenario for a 20-year-old — and he’s showing aptitude in Cleveland’s surprising start to the season. He jumps out on screens and can defend the perimeter, but is still quick enough to get to the paint for rim protection and hitting the boards.
It feels like there’s very little he can’t do, especially as J.B. Bickerstaff makes the best use of an unconventional roster. Mobley feels like the glue to make it all work, and unlike most top-three picks, this entire operation for now isn’t built around him.
But succeeding in spite of these things — the setup is the correct approach for the Cavs, it should be said — will only help Mobley as time goes on.