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Weeks If Not Months In Advance, A Thorough Preview Of The 2021-22 NBA Season

Rooftop basketball in NYC, circa 1950
Archive Photos/Getty Images

Good day to you, casual basketball fan! It’s many long weeks before the NBA will tip off yet another season, to the delight of hoops enthusiasts everywhere—but it’s never too early to be excited about it! To look ahead at what’s to come: This is the true joy of the sporting offseason, which is still going on right now for sure.

With that in mind, and again, extremely early, let’s pre-view the 2021-22 season, while there’s still lots of time left to familiarize ourselves with this stuff before anybody reasonably could expect or have reason to discuss any of it.

Ah. Hm. I’m being told by my editor that the season in fact tipped off last night. Well. We’ll just see about that. Here, read about some damn teams while I look into it.


Atlanta Hawks

Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

What is their deal?
The Hawks got off to a terrible start in 2020-21, fired head coach Lloyd Pierce in March, caught fire under replacement Nate McMillan, and finished with a 41-31 record, good for the fifth seed in the East. Factoring in the team’s extreme youth and how badly it sucked in each of the first two seasons since the big 2018 draft-day trade that sent Luka Doncic to Dallas in exchange for Trae Young, this would would have made it the most successful Hawks season, holistically if not in strict winning-percentage terms, since an older iteration lost the 2015 conference finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

And then! The Hawks wiped out the fourth-seeded New York Knicks in five games in the first round, behind electrifying performances from Young. And then! They damn won a whole other playoff series, a seven-game clash with the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, booting those doofuses into their umpteenth existential crisis of the past four years. And then! They, ah, lost the conference finals to the eventual champions, the Milwaukee Bucks. But still! Hell yeah. Good job, 2020-21 Atlanta Hawks.

The mission this season isn’t really to surpass last season’s result; I think even the most spiral-eyed of Atlanta Hawks fanatics* would be shocked into incoherence if this team represents the East in the 2022 Finals. Equaling or nearly equaling last year’s playoff run would, if nothing else, confirm it wasn’t a hallucination.

*No such people exist.

Who are not more than two (2) of their guys?
I will show you one guy, and that guy is Trae Young. Here’s Trae Young doing cool shit against the Philadelphia 76ers:

Look at how easily Young glides into that deadly middle area of the defense, between the wall around three-point arc and the interior area where Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid patrols. Look at how comfortable he is keeping his dribble alive once he gets there, to the hectic center of the action, and how much havoc he brings with him: the full array of floaters, darting drives under the basket, pocket passes with either hand, kick-out passes to shooters, and dark-arts shithousing for fouls. This is against one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, and largely against Ben Simmons, one of the league’s very best individual defenders. The ugly chest-pass three-point shot runs hot and cold, and Young’s shot selection from out there can be laugh-out-loud bad; the floor game stuff, his ability to calmly wrench an opposing defense into critical condition with quickness, handle, vision, and tempo, is special.

Are they good?
Sure, with one big, uh, proviso or whatever. The defining challenge for ball-dominant, high-usage guards who also happen to be very teensy weensy has always been to stay healthy across an entire regular season and deep playoff run; for teams dependent on that type of player, it can be hard to develop any kind of backup plan, since the micro-general always has the ball. Injuries and wear to Chris Paul have fatally undermined the ambitions of basically every team he’s ever been on (see below); Kyrie Irving, Trae Young’s closest NBA antecedent in terms of dimension and ability if not position on the brain meme chart, has never managed stable fitness across an entire season in 10 years in the NBA; Young himself limped to the finish against the Bucks in the playoffs. The Hawks are good for as long as Trae Young is healthy.

Do they have any pandemic buttheads?
Apparently not! The Hawks’ front office claims the team will be 100-percent vaccinated by the time the NBA season begins. I mean began. I’ve really got to get moving, here.

Will they be fun to watch?
Probably. The NBA has promised to curtail whistles granted in return for the kind of shameless shithousing that defined the first half of Trae Young’s 2020-21 campaign and which made the Hawks, for a time, absolutely unwatchable. We’ll see. No rule can make the league’s referees not vain jackasses eager to reward whatever makes them feel like the game’s main characters.

Playoffs?
They’ve got a chance! They’re right in the mix!


Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum, Boston CelticsCredit: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

What is their deal?
The Celtics finished last season with a 36-36 record, good enough for a very disappointing seventh seed in the East. They crapped out of the first round of the playoffs in five games at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets. That was the end for longtime president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, who retired immediately afterward, leaving unrealized for all time the promise of Big Earth-Shaking Moves that justified all his annual refusals to commit assets toward the immediate pursuit of a championship. LOL.

The club promoted head coach Brad Stevens to take his place at the top of the front office. Ime Udoka, who’d been a highly regarded assistant on good coaching staffs in San Antonio, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn, is the new head coach.

As they seem to do pretty much annually, the Celtics tinkered around the edges of a core that isn’t quite good enough to do more than tune up the conference’s eventual representative in the finals. In that respect they are to the past five years what the Atlanta Hawks were to the 10 years before that. Fittingly, they’ve brought back the avatar of that Hawks team’s dignified nothing-special-ness, 35-year-old Al Horford, for another run in Boston.

Please, I wish to learn of no more than two of their guys.
Their guys are Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, again. I have nothing new to say about these two young dudes, who only seem to have been at the core of Boston’s doomed ambitions for 20 straight years. Instead, here is a fun video of my favorite of the two, Jaylen Brown, hanging 40 points on the Lakers on freaking 85-percent shooting from the field.

Are they good?
Bleah, yes, fine, they’re good.

Do they have any pandemic buttheads?
Quite possibly! As recently as the end of September, the Celtics reportedly had “several players” who hadn’t yet received COVID-19 vaccinations. Brown tested positive for COVID-19 the week before last; he’d been notably evasive in September when reporters asked him about his vaccination status. Horford, of similarly unknown vaccination status, tested positive last Tuesday.

Stevens and Udoka are giving mush-mouthed quotes about how they’d “love to have close to 100 percent if possible” and respecting everyone’s “personal choice” on the matter, which seems like it could indicate the anti-vaxxers in the house are among the team’s stars or on-court leaders. Great.

Will they be fun to watch?
I dunno, man, do you particularly like watching Al Horford make good decisions? I don’t.

Playoffs?
They’re in the hunt! You can’t count these fellas out!


Brooklyn Nets

Kyrie Irving, possibly still of the Brooklyn NetsCredit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

What is their deal?
The Nets went 48-24 last season, claimed the East’s second playoff seed, and knocked off the Celtics in the first round. In the second round against the Milwaukee Bucks, with both James Harden and Kyrie Irving either absent or badly hobbled, Kevin Durant played some of the best and most complete basketball you’ll ever see in your life and came within an only slightly misplaced toe of carrying them to a win in Game 7 and on to the conference finals.

This, whatever anybody says about expectations, made the Nets’ 2020-21 season an unambiguous success. They traded for Harden without fatally unbalancing their roster. They integrated one-two-three incredibly high-usage scorers, no fewer than two of whom are known for, ah, prickliness, into a single team successfully and played what certainly looked like invincible basketball for long stretches. Most importantly, Durant played every bit like his old world-destroying self, after missing the entire 2019-20 season recovering from just about the worst plausible injury (the Achilles tendon rupture he suffered in the 2019 Finals) a professional basketball player can sustain.

And then Kyrie Irving decided to, well … to do the absolute least surprising thing imaginable, really. He’s out indefinitely with a case of Galaxy Brain.

Place before me a maximum of two (2) guys, so that I might know them.
Hm. I feel as though I have already done that. Did you even read the previous section of this blog?

Are they good?
Yes. Even without Irving, they’re very good; it’s plausible they could represent the East in the Finals even if he never plays again. They have Kevin Durant and James Harden! Rotate six or seven Spirit Halloween animatronics around them and they’ll still have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. As it is, they’ve assembled a typical motley of savvy, ring-chasing old has-beens—James Johnson, Patty Mills, Paul Millsap, Blake Griffin, etc.—like you find every year on teams built around multiple max-contract players. Can one or two of them outperform 3.8 Ft. Harriet Hustle Animatronic and tilt a key stretch of a playoff game toward Brooklyn?

It’s just, with a healthy and not brain-boomed Kyrie, they might well be a 70-win team. Without him, they’re not.

Do they have any pandemic buttheads?
They have the pandemic butthead!

Will they be fun to watch?
They’ll be fascinating, regardless of what happens with Irving.

Playoffs?
They’ve got a chance! They’re right in the mix!


Charlotte Hornets

LaMelo Ball, Charlotte HornetsCredit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Pictured: The exciting Ball brother.

What is their deal?
The Hornets went 33-39 last season; they finished 10th in the East but only one game back of the eighth-place Washington Wizards, who made the playoffs. This qualifies as a success for the woebegone Hornets, and maybe even a smashing one, given that third overall draft choice LaMelo Ball played only 51 games due to a broken wrist that caused him to miss all of April. Even better: Ball performed pretty damn well in the games he did play, flashing impressive playmaking creativity and flair for a then-19-year-old (if also demonstrating the poor scoring efficiency and butt-ugly shooting mechanics now depressingly characteristic of his family). That’s great. Great for the Hornets. It’s afternoon now and I simply do not have time to dwell on them.

Show to me a maximum of two (2) guys.
Well, there’s LaMelo, for one. The coolest type of NBA player is the type who has highlight reels dedicated just to his cool passes.

Hell yeah. It simply rocks to have that type of dude on the team you root for. Congratulations to Hornets fans.

[Scanning Hornets roster] They also have Gordon Hayward. That is another type of dude.

Are they good?
Not really.

Pandemic buttheads?
100 percent of the Charlotte Hornets are vaccinated against COVID-19, the contagious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Good work, buddies.

Will they be fun to watch?
Yes.

Playoffs?
They’re in the hunt! You can’t count these fellas out!


Chicago Bulls

Lonzo Ball, Chicago BullsCredit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Pictured: The sad Ball brother.

What is their deal?
The Bulls finished the 2020–21 NBA season in 11th place in the East, with a 31-41 record. They missed the playoffs for the fourth straight year and the fifth out of the past six. Then they pretty much blew up their roster. But then they did a weird thing! They didn’t go into the tank. Instead, they jettisoned a bunch of dudes who suck, and brought in some dudes who might suck less! (Below we will discuss not more than two of them.)

How weird! A bad team just, like, spent an offseason hiring better players to replace bad ones, for the purpose of improving. So few teams do that in the modern NBA, where the custom is for only the already-good teams to try to improve, all the others race to become as dismal and hopeless as they possibly can as quickly as they can, and fans and media types celebrate them for it. Insanely, the practice of pursuing players who can make your team better is seen as the riskier option: because it costs more; because it’s much easier to identify cheap players who suck than undervalued ones who might help you win; because GM-brained media idiots regard the effort by basketball teams to win basketball games as a wasteful extravagance distracting from the more meaningful pursuit of maximizing asset value.

In any event, on paper, the Bulls now have a decent roster of credible veteran players. If they miss the playoffs this season, basketbloggers will treat this as an outrageous squandering of opportunity—not, that is, because they missed a chance to go to the playoffs, but because they missed a chance to maximize their odds of winning the draft lottery.

Two guys! I need not more than two guys, immediately!
Clearing out Lauri Markkanen (woof) made this pretty definitively Zach LaVine’s show. LaVine made his first All-Star team and his Olympic debut this past year, as he blossomed into an all-world scorer for the Bulls. I suppose the jury’s still out on whether a team built around Zach LaVine can actually succeed—the man plays no defense and is not particularly good at any part of basketball other than seeking and making his own shots—but then again, the jury is out on whether a team built around friggin’ Jonathan Isaac can succeed, too, and he can’t score 28 points a night. It’s pretty good to be able to score 28 points a night!

Here’s Zach LaVine scoring a lot of points:

He can really frickin’ score it, man.

The Bulls traded for Nikola Vucevic toward the end of last season, and DeMar DeRozan came over from San Antonio via sign-and-trade back in August. They also can score it. I realize that’s three guys. I can count.

(They also have Lonzo Ball, pictured above for the sake of making fun of him in the caption. Moving on now!)

Are they good?
Mmmmaybe? None of the teams who finished above the Bulls last season look like terribly obvious candidates to fall, so it may not come to much, standings-wise. I’d like it if they’re better this season.

Do they have any pandemic buttheads?
Seems so. The Bulls’ honchos said back on Media Day (Sept. 27) that the team was not 100-percent vaccinated at that point—by which, just to be clear, the pandemic had been raging for 18 months, 700,000 Americans had been killed by it, vaccines had been available for more than half a year, and there was no earthly excuse for any healthy, medically eligible adult in the United States, particularly very wealthy ones with months of free time, not to have sought out full vaccination.

Will they be fun to watch?
Probably not.

Playoffs?
They’ve got a chance! They’re right in the mix!


Cleveland Cavaliers

A landfillCredit: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP via Getty Images

Dallas Mavericks

Luka Doncic, Dallas MavericksCredit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

What is their deal?
The Mavericks went 42-30 last season, good for the West’s fifth seed. For the second straight year, this bought them a first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers, whom the Mavs pushed to seven games, one more than in 2020.

On one hand, that’s a success. Winning a healthy majority of your games is success. Making the playoffs is success. Banking another mostly injury-free and wildly productive season from a young franchise cornerstone is success (even if his numbers broadly leveled off from his second season). On the other hand, it’s also slightly disappointing: 2020-21 was supposed to be the season the young cornerstone, Luka Doncic, blossomed into a real MVP type of dude and the Mavs moved into the upper ranks of the West’s championship seekers. Instead he produced at pretty much the same level as the year before, and the Mavs were the same team they’d been, and they got eliminated by the same team in the same round as before.

And then they didn’t even change much! If they pull this shit again, I’m just copy-pasting this section into next year’s blog.

Present for my review up to two (2) guys from this team.
Well, you got your dang Luka Doncic, for one.

Young Luka is the NBA’s premier floor-game guy after Chris Paul: All nifty change-of-pace stuff and Ass Game and keeping the dribble alive and moving defenders around with his eyes and such. Like Paul, unfortunately, Luka’s deployment of those skills bears a strong and depressing reek of the dark arts: At any given time, Luka is manipulating the referees as much as he is manipulating the opposing pick-and-roll defense. When he misses a shot, or turns the ball over, or when he’s outfought for a rebound, it’s because he got fouled, even if he didn’t get fouled; he tends to sulk and turn bright red when the whistles don’t go his way, and the vibes turn shitty. He’s not nearly as fun to watch as a preternaturally gifted and stylish passer, a nightly triple-double threat, a fearless practitioner of the deep step-back three-pointer, ought to be. It’s a bummer!

I’m looking at the Mavericks’ roster and it’s making me frown. These dudes are all butt! They added Frank Ntilikina, the young French guard whose career went virtually nowhere in New York. I like him. I think there’s hope for him yet!

Are they good?
Sure, yeah, they’re good. 40-something-wins good.

Pandemic buttheads?
Trey Burke is a pandemic butthead. An “I’m doing my own research” guy.

Will they be fun to watch?
No.

Playoffs?
They’re in the hunt! You can’t count these fellas out!


Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic, Denver NuggetsCredit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

What is their deal?
Ah, the Nuggets. I might have picked them to win the Finals last year, before guard (and team talisman) Jamal Murray’s ACL went kablooey in an April game against the Golden State Warriors. At that point it became pretty clear they’d be lucky just to equal the previous season’s conference finals run. They couldn’t do it; the Phoenix Suns swept them out of the second round. Oh well.

Show to me a maximum of two (2) guys.
Nikola Jokic won the MVP award last season, and deservedly! It’s a great achievement for him and a thunderous validation of the choice to build a team around a doughy, below-the-rim Serbian center drafted 41st overall in 2014, 33 picks after the Sacramento Kings selected Nik frickin’ Stauskas. And yet it still wound up being a slightly bitter occasion: On the night the NBA actually awarded Jokic the dang trophy, the Nuggets fell into an inescapable 3-0 hole in their playoff series against the Suns, effectively ending their season two whole rounds shy of the championship had just recently seemed like a plausible destination.

Anyway here is Jokic doing cool stuff.

At some point, the Nuggets will also have Murray back—but not yet, and probably not soon.

Are they good?
Hell damn yeah they’re good!

Do they have pandemic buttheads?
Ugh, yes, they do. Outrageously talented young wing/forward Michael Porter Jr. was perhaps the most predictable pandemic butthead in the entire NBA, and he’s reportedly not the only one on the team.

Will they be fun to watch?
Jokic is always a blast.

Playoffs?
They’ve got a chance! They’re right in the mix!


Detroit Pistons, presented by Defector Detroit Pistons Sicko Maitreyi Anantharaman

Cade Cunningham and Isaiah Livers of the Detroit PistonsCredit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

What is their deal?
Their deal is OK! Detroit finished last season with a 20-52 record, good for dead last in the East. The nature of the tank impressed me. They lost often, and sometimes badly, but kept a surprising number of games close. The ’Stons became a million times more watchable two months into the season when they de-gunked themselves of Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose. Where their identity had once been “knee injury,” it was now “young, with really long arms.” The result was a team interesting and punchy enough to merit a real blurb in the preview this year, if not interesting and punchy enough for Albert to write the blurb himself. In hindsight, admittedly, the season might only seem this fun now that I know it yielded the first pick in the NBA draft. If you’d like to find out who the Pistons drafted with the first pick, see the next section.

Introduce me to a maximum of two (2) guys.
You might recall from the previous section that the Pistons had the first pick in the NBA draft. They selected lorge playmaker Cade Cunningham, an actually good basketball player with a kind of 19-going-on-40 demeanor.

The second guy I will introduce you to is Jerami Grant. We would die for him! His decision to leave the Nuggets for less crowded offensive pastures, once clowned on and hooted at by the haters, paid off in his first season with Detroit, where he became, improbably, The Guy. A quick glance at Basketball Reference does remind me that his numbers dipped as the rest of the rotation got younger and tankier (that is, worse; Hamidou Diallo is no damn Stalinist!). Perhaps this nudged Jerami toward unwise levels of being The Guy. Still, Jerami owns. His emergence as a complete scorer surprised and delighted me. Though he was merely a Most Improved Player finalist and not a winner, that is fine with me. I trust that whichever deserving young man got the award took care of business in the playoffs and continued to improve.

Are they good?
At basketball? No.

Do they have any pandemic buttheads?
The Detroit Pistons are fully vaccinated.

Will they be fun to watch?
Yeah! Yes! For the first time in a while, I don’t feel like I’m tricking myself into believing that.

Playoffs?
lol

Thank you to Defector Detroit Pistons Sicko Maitreyi Anantharaman for this report on the Detroit Pistons.


Golden State Warriors

Draymond Green, Golden State WarriorsCredit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

What is their deal?
The Warriors went 39-33 last season, the eighth-best record in the West; instead of earning them a spot in the actual NBA playoffs, this qualified them for the abominable play-in tournament for the final two playoff spots. They lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in their first game, to decide the seventh seed; LeBron James beat the shot-clock buzzer with a ridiculous 30-foot three-pointer to give the Lakers a 103-100 lead with about minute left, and nobody scored after that.

The Warriors still could have gotten in as the eighth seed if they’d beaten the Memphis Grizzlies two nights later, but they didn’t. This leaves them with the grim distinction of having missed the postseason despite finishing with a better record than one of the playoff teams. Ugly! Gross! Hm, you know what would be great, would be to invent a pair of games over two nights at the end of the season expressly for the purpose of invalidating the results of the previous six months of the season is an idea so obviously stupid, so mired in fitful self-loathing and naked avarice that it’s hard to believe the NBA didn’t borrow it from Major League Baseball.

Wow, I could really go for learning about two (2) guys on this team right now.
You already know Steph Curry and Draymond Green; you already know Klay Thompson. Or anyway if you don’t, too frickin’ bad!!

The Warriors added Otto Porter Jr. this season. I like ol’ Otto. That is all I will say about him. The supporting cast outside of him is pretty hilarious.

Are they good?
Yeah, they’re probably fine. I’ll need to see proof with these two dang eyes right here that a team with healthy versions of Curry, Green, and Thompson on it can be not-good before I’ll believe it. The “healthy” bit is the uncertain part: Thompson has missed two straight seasons with horrible leg injuries, and likely won’t even be cleared for full-contact practices before Thanksgiving; Curry’s always had trouble avoiding little nagging injuries to his extremities; Green will turn 31 this season and hasn’t played more than 70 games in a season since 2016–17.

Pandemic buttheads?
Andrew Wiggins was a pandemic butthead, and tried very doofusly to remain one. He might still be one, depending on your definition of “pandemic butthead”! But he is vaccinated. So far as I can tell, no other Warriors are known to be holding out.

Will they be fun to watch?
Yeah, sure, as long as they’re healthy.

Playoffs?
They’ve got a chance! They’re right in the mix!


Houston Rockets

An impact crater in the remote desert.Credit: Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images

Indiana Pacers

Screenshot from NBA Live 95 video gameCredit: Via Youtube

Los Angeles Clippers

Paul George, Los Angeles ClippersCredit: Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

What is their deal?
The Clippers went 47-25 last season, good for the West’s fourth seed. They knocked off the Mavericks in the first round, rallied past the Utah Jazz in the second despite losing Kawhi Leonard toward the end of Game 4, and fell to the Phoenix Suns in the conference finals. That was maybe disappointing? Or funny in a mean-spirited type of way? I honestly can’t remember. Let the past go, man! I am all about the future, here. The future of being done with this blog.

As for the Clippers, that future will not include Leonard for a while! The knee injury that ended his participation in that Jazz series, first diagnosed as a sprain, wound up being surgery for a partially torn ACL. A typical recovery period for a surgery like his would have him returning at the earliest right around when the upcoming season’s playoffs begin, by which time I hope to have turned in this blog for editing. Based on Leonard’s personal history of, ah, extreme conservatism in injury management, it seems at least strongly possible that he will not play at all this season.

Here’s him destroying the Mavericks in Game 6 of that first-round series, in the meantime:

In return for that I will settle for one (1) guy in this section.
Thank you! It’s the Paul George show for the time being. After a few years as a postseason punchline (only sometimes deservedly, but extremely deservedly in those times), George largely vindicated himself with some good, tough performances in that season-ending Suns series, including a spectacular and heroic 41-point job with the Clippers facing elimination in Game 5. He shot 15-for-dang-20 from the field, in 41 minutes of playing time; he recorded 13 rebounds, six assists, and three steals too. I honestly had no memory whatsoever of that, before looking it up just now.

What a performance! Truly unforgettable.

Are they good?
They’re probably good. I don’t think anybody expects a version of the Clippers whose second-best player may very well be Reggie Jackson to conquer the world, the way people (wrongly!) expected the version with both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard to conquer the world. But they’re versatile and good anyway.

Do they have any pandemic buttheads on the team?
Head coach Tyronn Lue says the Clippers are 100-percent vaccinated. Good stuff, fellas!

Will they be fun to watch?
They were misery to watch even when Kawhi was healthy. Then again the next fun, slick, expressive thing Kawhi does on a basketball court will be the first of his lifetime, so maybe they didn’t lose much in the fun department. In any event they will not be fun to watch.

Playoffs?
They’re in the hunt! You can’t count these fellas out!


Los Angeles Lakers

LeBron James dressed like a dang fisherman on the sideline during a Lakers preseason gameCredit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

What is their deal?
Blech. Uuuugh. Bluhhhhhhhh.

The Lakers, wracked by injury, frequently rendered ludicrous by load management, and pretty clearly hung over from their championship run in the atrocious Orlando bubble, stumbled to a miserable 42-30 record last season, tied for the fifth-best record in the West but mired in play-in territory by tiebreakers. That LeBron James shot against the Warriors that I embedded up there 14,000 words ago sufficed to lock up their seventh seed and what some idiot thought was a favorable first-round matchup against the Phoenix Suns, but hoo boy was that ever wronger than shit. The Lakers went out in six games, losing the last three by approximately a cumulative 500 points, a feeble and embarrassing exit for the defending champs.

I tentatively expect better from them this season! They had a full offseason, for one thing; for another, they went out and signed … oh, gross, an absolute Suicide Squad of washed-up remnants of some All-NBA second team from like 2008. Russell Westbrook! Carmelo Anthony! DeAndre Jordan! Dwight Howard! Rajon Rondo! Trevor freaking Ariza! I might revise my expectations from back at the beginning of this paragraph if I were not All About The Future In This Blog.

Show to me a maximum of two (2) guys.
The guys are LeBron James and Anthony Davis! Davis seemed to blossom at last into the league’s new best player in the 2020 playoffs, when he carried the Lakers to a deeply suspect championship, but he spent what little of last season he participated in reverting to the passive, dull-eyed cipher he’d been throughout much of his accursed time with the New Orleans Pelicans. Who freaking knows with this guy! I don’t!

As for LeBron, I was all set to grimace my way through this paragraph, until I scanned his Basketball Reference page and realized that his 2020–21 production was pretty hilariously in line with what he’s put up year in and year out for, uh, like 15 straight years. The difference last season is that, when the playoffs came around, he seemed finally unable to just will the whole rest of the league out of the way. Maybe that’s all down to the compressed schedule over the previous season-and-a-half, and the rigors of that uniquely weird and exhausting 2020 playoff run. On the other hand, dammit, someday this guy has to actually become old and diminished! The laws of nature demand it.

Are they good?
They’re good. Miserable! But good.

Pandemic buttheads?
LeBron himself seemed like he was flirting with pandemic buttheadery for a while—though, considering the role he reportedly played in both making the Orlando bubble happen and ending the wildcat strike that briefly derailed it, anyone who thought he’d sacrifice any part of the rest of his career on the altar of vaccine skepticism was fooling themselves. (It’d be fair to consider the whole Orlando thing its own form of pandemic buttheadery, for that matter.) In any case, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said, back on Sept. 23, that he expected the team to be 100-percent vaccinated by opening night.

Will they be fun to watch?
No.

Playoffs?
They’ve got a chance! They’re right in the mix!


Memphis Grizzlies

Ja Morant, Memphis GrizzliesCredit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

What is their deal?
The precocious Grizzlies finished last season 38-34; it’s the third straight season they finished with a better winning percentage than the year before. This time around, it earned them a crack at the play-in tournament, which they turned into an eighth-seeded playoff berth, whereupon the vastly superior Utah Jazz promptly ushered them into vacation.

All of that happened in a season in which prized young big dude Jaren Jackson Jr. appeared in only 11 regular season games, all of them clumped together at the end of the schedule, due to a meniscus tear he suffered in the COVID-19 bubble in August of 2020. He’s back now! Back to wreck shit and do cool stuff. Hm. I guess that should have gone in the next section.

Show to me one (1) more guy.
Get a load of Ja Morant!

Nobody does this stuff. Not the guys half a foot taller and 60 pounds heavier than Ja Morant, and certainly not the pipsqueaks close in size to him. And he’s only 22! It’s unfair! In order to restore balance to the game, I really must insist that he join the Washington Wizards immediately. As a fellow lover of fairness, you agree completely.

As with Trae Young and the Hawks all those paragraphs ago, and perhaps more so in Morant’s case because of his incredibly kinetic and daring playing style, the big thing that will determine his and the Grizzlies’ fates will be his ability to avoid injury. At least twice in the last couple weeks of last season, Morant crumpled to the floor with what I was sure, at the time, was a liquefied ankle, if not the simultaneous complete rupture of every tendon in his body; in all cases he turned out more-or-less fine, which perhaps undermines my point or reveals that I don’t have one, but I stand by it, or anyway will delete nothing.

Are they good?
I think so! I don’t think they, or anyone else, quite know what they’ll be, yet—what a persistently successful team featuring Morant and Jackson will look like or what it’ll need to play like, beyond Let Ja do incredibly cool shit. That’s its own kind of fun, watching a young team figure itself out in the year after it blitzed its way to the playoffs largely on youthful pluck and bravery.

Do they have pandemic buttheads?
Here is a news report from a local Memphis outlet on the Grizzlies’ media day, featuring wise and heartwarming quotes from various Grizzlies players articulating their good reasons for having gotten vaccinated. My favorites are Morant saying, “I have a baby girl, I travel a lot. Can’t bring COVID back to her,” wing Desmond Bane saying, “Whatever happens down the road, I would be fine knowing that I was one of those people that was at least trying to save the other people,” and De’Anthony Melton saying, “”Having a niece and having little brothers, I wanted to be safe for them.” Hell yeah! I like these guys.

My least favorite is this vaguely antivax-flavored near-gibberish, from guard Dillon Brooks:

“To each their own, we’re all single human begins. I wouldn’t be all for one thing or the other,” Brooks said. “It would make your team or people around you’s life easier.”

localmemphis.com

Seems like maybe a pandemic butthead! Notably, on media day, the team’s GM could only say they were “working toward” 100-percent vaccination. Brooks is out for at least another few weeks with a hand injury.

Will they be fun to watch?
Yes.

Playoffs?
They’re in the hunt! You can’t count these fellas out!


Miami Heat

Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo, Miami HeatCredit: Mark Brown/Getty Images

What is their deal?
After a thrilling run to the (debased, abominable) 2020 Finals that seemed to mint them as the toughest and most cohesive—if not the straight-up best—team in the East, the Miami Heat hobbled to a 40-32 record last season, which earned them a crappy sixth seed in the playoffs and a brutal first-round sweep courtesy of Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. Their young players regressed; their older players played older; the whole thing stunk. I’m sure it’s a total coincidence that the two bubble finalists both limped through 2020-21 and mustered next to no fight whatsoever in first-round playoff exits.

Having said all of that: I still think the Heat are real damn good. So they’ve got that going for them, anyway. One of my favorite features of the Heat organization is that it treats pretty much each next season’s championship as just as attainable as all others: They faltered badly in the 2020-21 chase, so instead of shedding payroll and rebranding as A Young Team You Should Feel Proud Of So Long As It Finishes Near .500 And Gets A Good Draft Pick, they went out and signed 35-year-old Kyle freaking Lowry and 36-year-old P.J. Tucker.

This isn’t the same as the Los Angeles Lakers padding out their roster with washed-up bozos looking for a fruitful semi-retirement under the protection of LeBron James, the club’s de facto general manager. Lowry and Tucker are still very good players; Lowry was the second-best player and talisman of a title-winning Raptors team two seasons ago, and Tucker was a tactical lynchpin of last season’s champs. More importantly, they both fit perfectly with Miami’s existing culture of, uh, having a lot of ornery fuckers on the roster who will elbow somebody in the neck. And both signings meaningfully deplete other competitive Eastern Conference teams. That kicks ass!

The Heat also added Markieff Morris, who sucks. But he’s definitely willing to elbow people.

I demand to be shown two (2) guys.
I just showed you three! Where’s the appreciation, I ask you.

Fine. Fine! However much Lowry and Tucker might contribute, the Heat are still Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo’s operation. By the end of that 2020 postseason I guess there was some hope that ballsy, famously mean-mugging young guard Tyler Herro might grow into a third star for Miami, but I think that hope receded a tad last season; his per-100-possessions numbers stayed largely flat or got worse, and so did the Heat when he was on the court, and then they signed Kyle Lowry to play point guard. It’s possible he’s just a burner type of guy off the bench. Anyway, that’s three more friggin’ guys, more than discharging my duties to this section of the blog.

Are they good?
They’re good.

Buttheads?
Hey, speaking of Herro—no! It’s not what you think! Herro revealed back on Oct. 11 that the Heat are a “fully vaccinated team.” That’s great. Good for the Miami Heat.

Will they be fun to watch?
Yeah, sure. Not in the freewheeling way that, like, the Denver Nuggets or Golden State Warriors will be fun to watch, or in the sense that the Nets will be fun to watch because it’s always fascinating to watch God-level stars work together, or how it will be fun to watch Ja Morant just do crazy bold impossible shit for the Grizzlies. It’s just fun, in a more understated type of way, to watch a very smart team of competitive veterans figure shit out and reconfigure itself on the fly to outwit opponents. It is to me, dammit!

Playoffs?
They’ve got a chance! They’re right in the mix!


Milwaukee Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrates winning the 2020 NBA championshipCredit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

What is their deal?
They’re the defending NBA champions, is their deal!

Who are at most two (2) of their guys?
Here’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, utterly destroying the Phoenix Suns in the close-out Game 6 of the Finals:

I’ve been a public Giannis Doubter over the past couple seasons, as his Bucks teams crapped out of the middle parts of the playoffs after each of his two MVP campaigns. It would be sleazy and disingenuous for me now to be like, “All of those doubts were well-founded, right up until he magically changed in exactly the ways I said he should, at which point I correctly stopped doubting him.” It probably was dumb to doubt him in the first place!

All the same, last season’s playoffs, and especially that final series, felt special to me: a rare chance to see all of what made a historically unique player extraordinary in the first place come together and sustain at a new level of brilliance, in real time. Giannis didn’t fix the stuff—a limited scoring repertoire, shaky free-throw shooting, and a giant guy’s occasional clumsiness navigating the court’s tighter spaces, mainly—that had undermined him in previous postseasons; he simply did the Giannis Stuff so impossibly, overwhelmingly well, and with such total commitment and ferocity, that nothing else mattered. He made the handwringing over his clunky jump shot look incredibly silly. Kudos to the wise knowers who felt sure he had that in him. Your bonus points may be redeemed at any participating 7-Eleven.

Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday also are very good, and play for the Bucks.

Are they good?
They’re the freaking champions.

Do they have any pandemic buttheads?
Yes, apparently. Giannis is vaccinated! But the Bucks are not 100-percent vaccinated, as of Oct. 11 anyway. You fools! You damn fools. Get your jabs!

Will they be fun to watch?
They’ll be mandatory to watch.

Playoffs?
They’re in the hunt! You can’t count these fellas out!


Minnesota Timberwolves


New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson, New Orleans PelicansCredit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

What is their deal?
They suck and I hate them, is their deal.

May I please view two (2) guys from this team?
No.

The Pelicans were supposed to be last season’s fun, youthful team that was ready to start competing, but instead they were last season’s team that reminds me that mostly basketbloggers don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. They sucked. They were poison for the eyeballs. They had shit vibes. All of their guys can go to hell.

Are they good?
No.

Are any of them pandemic buttheads?
Possibly. As recently as the last week of September, Pelicans general manager David Griffin indicated at least one New Orleans player hadn’t yet been vaccinated. Like pretty much every other team honcho who had similar news to report, he said some stuff about being hopeful they’d get to 100-percent vaccination by opening night, which seems ominously likely to have happened by the time I turn this blog in, so let’s move right along now.

Will they be fun to watch?
No.

Playoffs?
They’ve got a chance! They’re right in the mix!


New York Knicks

New York Knicks playersCredit: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

What is their deal?
The Knicks—the Knicks! The New York Knicks!—were perhaps the happiest story of the 2020-21 season. After seven straight losing seasons, and an entire lifetime of being fucking annoying, these dang accursed Knickerbockers returned to the playoffs in 2021, capturing the East’s fourth seed with a 41-31 record. OK, yes, fine, they got booted straight into the garbage at that point by a plainly much more dynamic and ambitious Atlanta Hawks team, and absorbed a humiliating close-out loss on their home floor … but still. The Knicks! With a young and likable team of optimistic punks, at that! Signs and wonders, man.

Something pretty much exactly like this was probably the best-case scenario when the Knicks hired Tom Thibodeau to be their coach before last season. The precise stuff that has made him such a bad long-term fit in every other stop of his career—his lunatic intensity and urgency; his over-reliance on a few key players he wears down with far too many minutes of playing time; his hidebound prioritization of whatever will facilitate winning now, even at the expense of developing flexibility and depth later on; his miserly tactical approach to basketball—made him a good fit for the Knicks, a shattered and wayward franchise whose young players would buy into anything that could make them believe in the possibility of ever doing more in Knicks jerseys than embarrassing themselves. The Tom Thibodeau Way doesn’t need four years of tanking to demonstrate that it can work, and neither demands nor rewards some third-brained investment of blind Process trust. That’s the whole sales pitch, in fact: Just about the only thing you can count on a Tom Thibodeau team to be is competitive early—in games and seasons.

The faltering comes later. And did! But first, the Knicks posted only their fifth winning record this millennium. Young New York players seemed to actually flourish, for the first time in years; also for the first time in years. That’s something. It’s really something!

Two (2) guys?
I will show to you Julius Randle, who looked like one of the NBA’s best all-around players for pretty much all of the 2020-21 regular season…

…and then looked alarmingly like he had spent two pregame hours spinning in a tight circle in each game of that first-round loss to the Hawks.

Oof! I chalk this up to my abundantly empirically upstanding Tom Thibodeau theory: Not only was Randle mentally and physically exhausted after leading the NBA in both total minutes (his own teammate, R.J. Barrett, came in second) and minutes per game (37.6, over five minutes more per game than he’d ever logged before), but Thibodeau’s whole approach left the Knicks tactically unprepared for flexibility demanded by a playoff series. Even if Thibodeau himself had had any good schematic twists to deploy (he didn’t), the Knicks’ most important players were too worn-out and dead-legged to implement them.

Again: From the Knicks organization’s perspective, this was a fine trade-off, in return for the team’s first dignified season in years. Go into the Tom Thibodeau experience with eyes wide open. Randle had the best season of his career, made his first all-star and all-NBA teams, and won the Most Improved Player award. I’m betting he’d take that deal 10 times out of 10. Let’s revisit the terms, and the cartilage in his load-bearing joints, in 2022.

Ah right, I owe you another guy. Here’s young Immanuel Quickley, who is neither better nor more important than R.J. Barrett, but might be even cooler than his name:

He’s cool.

Are they good?
Tentatively, yes.

Do they have pandemic buttheads?
The whole organization is (reportedly) 100-percent vaccinated, top to bottom, players and coaches and staff. Hooray for New York City’s mighty vaccine mandate.

Will they be fun to watch?
I dunno about fun, but interesting, sure.

Playoffs?
They’re in the hunt! You can’t count these fellas out!


Oklahoma City Thunder

A cattle skull in a parched hellscapeCredit: Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Orlando Magic

A toll plaza at the entrance to Disney WorldCredit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Philadelphia 76ers

Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers, best pals for lifeCredit: Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

What is their deal?
Yes … Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Yes!

Show to me a maximum of two (2) guys.

Simmons maybe sleeping with his eyes open at practice on Monday.Credit: Screenshot: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Ben Simmons stands sullenly at Sixers practice.Credit: NBC Sports Philadelphia

Yes!

Are they good?
Yes.

Do they have any pandemic bu—
Yes … ha ha ha … Yes!

Will they be fun to watch?
Yes.

Playoffs?
They’ve got a chance! They’re right in the mix!


Phoenix Suns

Chirs Paul and Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns, at Game 4 of the WNBA semifinalsCredit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

What is their deal?
It was a dream season for the Suns. After a surprisingly spunky showing in the Orlando pandemic bubble, the Suns surprised the league by making a big trade for Chris Paul, betting that this aging, diminished, tiny, famously hard-charging (and oft-injured) star could organize the team’s next steps toward respectability after a pretty much entirely lost decade in the league’s sewer. To say that it worked is to understate things ridiculously. They made the damn Finals! They took a 2-0 lead over the Bucks, in the dang Finals! (And then they flatlined and lost four straight games and were eliminated. But still.)

Who are at most two (2) of their guys?
Prior to the trade for Paul, I think all but the most optimistic observers saw the Suns as sort of stumbling in fits through a possibly doomed rebuild. Devin Booker could score, sure, but seemed at least as likely to be a classic volume-scoring-on-a-bad-team guy as to flower into the cornerstone of a winner. Deandre Ayton, the other prize of all those shameful trips to the draft lottery, hadn’t taken shape yet at all. Now both of those dudes seem like future perennial all-stars, to me. You could imagine Booker winning a scoring title this year. You could imagine Ayton cementing a place among Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, and the league’s other great giants…

…on some other team! That’s because infamous cheapskate idiot owner Robert Sarver decided that the summer after his franchise’s first not-disappointing season since it still had freaking Steve Nash on the roster would be a good time to alienate his 23-year-old franchise center and former first overall draft pick over the question of a rookie-contract extension 29 out of 29 other organizations would leap at the chance to sign. This absolute dolt. Chris Paul can do a lot, but he can’t stop the Phoenix Suns from being the Phoenix Suns.

Are they good?
They’re terrific. For now.

Do they have any pandemic buttheads on the roster?
No, and yes. As of Oct. 1, all 16 Suns players had been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to reports. That’s great! Good job. On the other hand, Booker had this silly shit to say about it:

“The whole media day felt like a political debate […] We’re basketball players, man. To be highlighting the vaccine and putting that pressure on certain guys on what they should do or they shouldn’t do with their bodies, I feel it’s too much.”

OK, fine: He feels it’s intrusive for reporters to pry into pubic figures’ vaccination status, fine. Anyone is entitled to feel that way! But the vaccine is not some political issue, except to the exact same extent that literally everything else about life in a pluralistic society—including anybody’s cringing distaste for politics—is political.

You live in a society. Like pretty much every other human who ever lived, you move among other humans and can spread your germs to them and have their germs spread to you by them. The choices you make about how you interact with a virulent deadly fucking disease epidemic are not private choices about what to do with your own body. They are public choices about how much needless danger you will elect to impose upon the people around you against their will and without their consent. You go around all day passively accepting that the public will know facts about what kinds of clothes you like and what type of hairstyle you think flatters your face, if it’s curious to pay attention to you, despite none of that shit having any more than remote incidental bearing on whether anybody else will die horribly and alone in a locked-down ICU of an avoidable respiratory virus you passed to them. The public has a right to know whether you—any “you,” whether public figure or shy librarian—have chosen to endanger others instead of getting a totally safe and free vaccination.

I’m sorry if these facts scrape abrasively against bullshit psycho libertarian fantasy notions anybody had about what words like “freedom” and “autonomy” mean; I’m sorry if the community’s right to close off the vectors of transmissible infection around its most vulnerable members feels incompatible with anybody’s fear of needles or preference for facing no social consequences for their social choices. That must be uncomfortable. There are still plenty of ice floes out there for anybody in the market for an alternative to bearing some responsibility for other human beings. Get one while they last.

That was cathartic! I feel great. It’s noon on Wednesday now. Let’s move on.

Will they be fun to watch?
Yes!

Playoffs?
They’re in the hunt! You can’t count these fellas out!


Portland Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard's reflection, in front of rows of cardboard fansCredit: Steph Chambers/Getty Images

What is their deal?
They’re depressing and I don’t want to talk about them.

The Blazers made the playoffs for the eighth straight season in 2020-21, with a 42-30 record, good for the West’s sixth seed. This bought them a first-round meeting with the Denver Nuggets; for the fourth time in the past five years, the first round is as far as they got. Making the playoffs year after year without winning a championship is no cause for shame; plenty of teams would count such a stretch as the most bountiful in their history. The trouble with the Blazers is, the best player in the history of the franchise seems pretty fed up with it.

And that was before they replaced their head coach with accused sex criminal Chauncey Billups.

Two (2) guys, please.
Well, for now there’s still Damian Lillard, who certainly sounded in the mood for major changes, either to the Blazers or to what team he’s on, in the aftermath of that loss to the Nuggets. Dame is still one of the NBA’s absolute best players and his dedication to making it work in Portland has been awesome; it’s great for the city’s fans that they get to root for him for at least a little longer. But the Blazers simply haven’t been able to make the kinds of changes to the team around him that seem even remotely likely to change the team’s fortunes much. Does it seem likely he’ll be any happier or more contented after yet another finish shy of his first Finals appearance? He’s only got so many years left, man.

In the past the second guy in the Blazers section of these blogs has been C.J. McCollum, the never-quite-good-enough second-best guy on the team. Dismally, that still describes him. He’s fine! A fine player with a rare ability to create his own shot, one of the most valuable skills in basketball. But man, the Blazers need more. For a while it seemed plausible that Portland might want to send him and a package of other players and/or draft picks to Philadelphia in return for Ben Simmons; hilariously, the Sixers’ front office was reported to have considered that too low a price for their interpersonally radioactive, terminally brain-boomed former first overall pick. Now that Simmons is getting himself kicked out of practices and suspended for being an asshole on top of his pathological fear of basketball’s essential act, I wonder if the Blazers would take that deal.

Are they good?
Yes, but also, not really.

Have they any pandemic buttheads?
The Portland Trail Blazers are 100-percent vaccinated.

Will they be fun to watch?
I very much doubt it.

Playoffs?
They’ve got a chance! They’re right in the mix!


Sacramento Kings

A giant sinkhole in TurkeyCredit: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

San Antonio Spurs


Toronto Raptors

A raptor skeleton on displayCredit: Eitan Abramovich/AFP via Getty Images

Utah Jazz

Donovan Mitchell, Utah JazzCredit: Chris Gardner/Getty Images

What is their deal?
Their deal is, they’re good. The Jazz went 52-20 last season, good for their fifth straight playoff appearance and first top seed in the playoffs since 1998. They made quick, five-game work of the Grizzlies in the first round, their first series win in three years. Rudy Gobert won his third Defensive Player of the Year award. Jordan Clarkson won Sixth Man of the Year. They were the class of the Western Conference all year. And then they got booted into vacation in the second round by the Clippers. Frickin’ Terance Mann hung 39 points on them in the clincher.

That’s just kinda the Utah Jazz Story. Pretty good, lots of success, and then you can tell the story of the season without more than passing mention of their existence.

Show to me a maximum of two (2) guys.
Fine. Fine! You want your two guys, here‘s your two damn guys.

Rudy GobertCredit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Rudy Gobert.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah JazzCredit: Alex Goodlett/Getty Images
Donovan Mitchell.

Are they good?
They’re very good. They’re deep and flexible, they can shoot the hell out of it and defend the hell out of it; Donovan Mitchell is one of the most explosive and voracious bucket-seekers presently doing it, and Gobert is a one-man defense. They’re sharp and tough and playoff tested and good. They’re good. Just like they were last damn year! Wake me up when the results change!

Pandemic buttheads?
The Utah Jazz are 100-percent vaccinated.

Will they be fun to watch?
As I get older, I’m re-learning that good teams, largely irrespective of style, are just more enjoyable to watch than bad ones. I don’t have time for bozos who suck! The Jazz know what they’re doing and do it well. That makes their games satisfying to watch, and I have soured and withered to the point that that’s basically the same thing as “fun” to me. So, yes. They are fun, in the absolute most backhanded and qualified sort of way imaginable.

Playoffs?
They’re in the hunt! You can’t count these fellas out!


Washington Wizards

A lil' demon-lookin' guy floats in front of spectators in an olde-timey engravingCredit: Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

What is their deal?
Puke.

Show to me a ma—
Puke puke puke. Puke.

Are they good?
Puuuuuuuuke.

Do they have any pandemic bu
Puke!

Will they be fu—
—cking miserable in every imaginable way? Yes.

Playoffs?
Puke!!!!!