While Kyrie Irving will sit out until he is vaccinated, the Nets still have a healthy Kevin Durant and James Harden.
Howard Beck: Nets over Nuggets
If we’ve learned anything by now (admittedly questionable), it’s that no NBA season unfolds as expected. On talent alone, everyone predicts Lakers and Nets. But odds are, one or both will fall short due to injuries, happenstance and/or general weirdness (hello, Kyrie). It says here the Nets will be just fine with two superstars instead of three, with an incredibly deep and versatile supporting cast. I’m less confident in the Lakers, due to age/health concerns throughout the rotation (including LeBron) and the possibly awkward fit of Russell Westbrook. If the Lakers falter, the West is wide open. And the Nuggets, with the reigning MVP, ample firepower (Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon) and the potential late-season return of Jamal Murray, have as good a shot as anyone.
Chris Mannix: Nets over Jazz
Don’t get lost in the drama in Brooklyn—even without Kyrie Irving the Nets have two MVP candidates, the NBA’s best floor spacer and a roster loaded with an interesting mix of championship-hungry veterans (welcome back, LaMarcus Aldridge) and springy young players (Cam Thomas can’t contribute this season … right?). And it’s way too early to say if Irving’s season is a wash. I’m rolling the dice on the Jazz out West, that Donovan Mitchell can take another step, that Mike Conley can stay healthy, that Jordan Clarkson will duplicate last season’s success. I think Utah will emerge from a loaded conference … only to run into a buzz saw from Brooklyn.
Michael Pina: Nets over Clippers
Even without Irving in the lineup every night (or ever again), it’s still so easy to pick the Nets as champions. They’re deeper and more experienced than they were last season, which, even as a never-ending experiment that cycled big-name talents in and out of the rotation all year long, finished with a better record than the Bucks and the greatest offense in NBA history. Consider this: Durant and Harden missed a combined 73 games and the team’s true shooting percentage (61%) was still higher than LeBron’s (60.2%). Brooklyn is the favorite and it’s not particularly close.
The Clippers, on the other hand, are a harder sell. When healthy, Kawhi Leonard is a top-five talent—but a partially torn ACL will keep him out for quite a while. At the same time, it’s hard to picture L.A. sustaining last year’s hot three-point shooting for another year—they shot 41.1% from deep, which is fourth-best in league history—especially with Eric Bledsoe and Justise Winslow in the rotation. But if Leonard returns sometime before the postseason begins, they have enough depth, versatility and talent to hang around as a serious threat—the seven seed nobody wants to see in Round 1.
In a conference that’s up for grabs, maybe they finish better than that. Continuity is their friend, with almost every other key contributor from last year’s conference finals run back in the mix, including Paul George, who is freaking awesome. Ty Lue is a tactical genius. All they need to do is get into the playoffs with Leonard healthy enough to log 35 minutes a night. If that happens, all bets are off.
Jeremy Woo: Nets over Nuggets
It’s very hard to sort out the preseason hierarchy in the West—there are plenty of dangerous, quality teams, but it’s hard to identify a great one on paper. I’ll roll the dice with Denver and bank on Jamal Murray’s healthy return. In the East, it’s hard not to go with the Nets, with or without Kyrie, though I suspect Milwaukee will be right there. I don’t feel great about any aspect of this, which bodes well for an intriguing regular season.
Michael Shapiro: Nets over Jazz
Count me among those actually concerned by the Lakers’ sluggish preseason, and with an imperfect field, perhaps this is the year Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz break through to the Finals. But ultimately, the Eastern Conference finals will once again serve as the true decider of the championship.
I’ll take the Nets this time around in a rematch against Giannis Antetokounmpo & Co. The clock is ticking on Durant and Harden’s primes, and even with the Irving uncertainty looming, the duo’s resolve paired with a legitimately improved rotation should lift Brooklyn over the top.
Pickman: Nets over Lakers
Even though it remains unclear whether Kyrie Irving will play for the Nets this season, I’d still take Brooklyn to take home this year’s title. The Nets enter this year’s campaign with perhaps the deepest roster in the league and, of course, also have two of the most dangerous players in the sport. What was perhaps a riskier Finals pick ahead of last season appears to be a much safer pick entering the 2021–22 season.
I wouldn’t be shocked if Phoenix made another run to the Finals out of the Western Conference, and perhaps if Jamal Murray returns late in the year and gives the Nuggets anything then Denver could also be a legitimate title contender, but it remains hard not to pick the Lakers to win their conference. Yes, there are questions about what their rotation will look like and specifically about which veterans will and won’t actually play, but if LeBron James and Anthony Davis remain healthy many of those worries can be a moot point. If we did see this matchup, it would surely be an exciting finish.