So much about the 2021-22 NBA season suggests we’re bound for abnormality. The Warriors and their fans can be thankful. Please allow me to explain.
One of the quiet truths about an 82-game season is that the chance of a team winning 70 is higher than that of no team reaching 60. Two clubs in the last 40 years have hit 70, but only once during that span has the No. 1 seed belonged to a team with less than 60 wins. The 2000-01 Spurs, with a league-best 58-24 record, were an aberration.
Prepare for another sub-60-wins leader in 2021-22, particularly in the Western Conference. The over/under lines posted by oddsmakers support the belief that the NBA is without a truly intimidating team.
The West, however, is wide open -- so much so that the Warriors, with all their questions and caveats and callow youth, have a chance at finishing with the best record.
Conceivable? Yes. Realistic? Yes. Probable? No.
But a No. 4 seed is extremely available to the Warriors. It’s less a matter of what must go right than what cannot go wrong.
Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will be ready for opening night, and until we see otherwise, expect nothing less than stellar. Andrew Wiggins needs to play at a level similar to last season, or better -- especially over the first couple months. If James Wiseman is to be a positive factor, and they’re betting on this, he’ll need his first full NBA training camp to generate some chemistry with his teammates, particularly Curry. There will be nights when youngsters Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody can contribute in the margins.
But the key for this team’s hopes of climbing into the top four is the return and effectiveness of Klay Thompson. He’s not expected to be ready for opening night. But if there are no setbacks, and he’s able play in 50 or so games, with increasing effectiveness, 50 wins and a top-four seed are on the table.
Warriors aside, the top five seeds in the West look like the Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz and LA Clippers. Here’s a look at the precarious path of each team:
They finished second last season, one game behind Utah, but should be better next season. Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson and Deandre Ayton are all 25 years old or younger, but have the benefit of 22 postseason games over an eight-week stretch. Monty Williams did a tremendous job last season and learned a lot. But Chris Paul, the team’s leader, wore down in the playoffs and will miss more than two games, as he did last season. They should finish atop the conference, with a win total in the mid-50s.
The consensus choice to represent the conference in The Finals, the Lakers are not trying to win 60 games. Probably not 55. Eight players will be 33 or older by midseason. With four members -- LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Russell Westbrook -- among the top six active players in career minutes, LA is built to win yesteryear. This team was assembled with the idea it would survive the regular season and reach the postseason with reasonably good health. Expect a total somewhere in the 50s.
The history under Quin Snyder is sneaky good and sneaky bad. It’s unfair to think that will change. Even when earning the No. 1 overall seed last season, they were not a legit title threat. Donovan Mitchell is an All-NBA caliber guard, Rudy Gobert is the league’s top rim protector and no bench scorer is better than Jordan Clarkson. Rudy Gay makes them longer on the wings. They’re very good, but Mike Conley’s health -- hamstrings matter -- is crucial. If they play for the regular season, they get into the high 50s. If they take the long view, they might reach 50.
In the two years since Kawhi Leonard and Paul George arrived as the foundation of the next “superteam,” the Clippers are 17-15 in the postseason. And Kawhi is expected to miss the entire season after undergoing knee surgery in July. Can’t wait to see their big offseason acquisition, Eric Bledsoe, “share” the backcourt with Reggie Jackson. OK, apologies for the shade. Seriously, though, even if Serge Ibaka makes a healthy return after back surgery -- always reason to wonder about that -- the Clips will struggle to get out of the 40s. Kawhi means that much.