The calendar has turned to 2022, and the NBA schedule is nearing its midpoint. High time to predict the season’s stretch run, starring Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons.
Who will win the 2022 NBA championship?
The Golden State Warriors might own the NBA’s best record, and the Brooklyn Nets might have the highest ceiling of any team in the league, but if I were a betting man — and the odds would be in my favor here — I am still picking reigning Finals MVP and his defending champion Milwaukee Bucks as the title favorites.
Golden State’s top-rated defense, anchored by Draymond Green, has outperformed its fourth-ranked offense, and the Warriors are about to reunite Klay Thompson with Splash Brother Stephen Curry. They are on pace to finish 66-16, and their role players’ performance has been reminiscent of the “Strength in Numbers” squad that won the 2015 championship. But Thompson has not played in 31 months, and I’m not entirely convinced Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and company are enough to push Curry and Green through four rounds of the playoffs, when a year ago they could not make it out of the play-in tournament.
There are even more question marks for Brooklyn. An unvaccinated Kyrie Irving is rejoining the Nets for road games, which will make for an interesting chemistry experiment, and James Harden has never been so inconsistent since emerging as a perennial MVP candidate. The depth around them is a serious concern, and yet they are second in the Eastern Conference, because Kevin Durant has been that good. If Irving’s return to basketball is the impetus for him to get vaccinated and rejoin his teammates full-time, and Harden plays his way closer to peak form, the Nets will be a force. But I do not trust either as they stand right now.
Milwaukee is worthy of your trust. When Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton take the floor together this season, the Bucks are outscoring opponents by 9.6 points per 100 possessions, operating like a top-two outfit on both ends of the floor and winning games at an 84% clip. Mostly minor injuries and COVID-19 protocols have kept the Bucks from fielding a full rotation, but their depth will be better for it, and their three best players have proven (knock on wood) remarkably durable in the playoffs.
Prediction: The Milwaukee Bucks will win the 2022 NBA championship.
Which non-favorite could still win the title?
Bet MGM’s oddsmakers agree: The Nets, Warriors and Bucks are firmly the top three title favorites. The Phoenix Suns, who reached last year’s Finals from an injury-ravaged Western Conference and returned just as strong, if not stronger, are the only other team with lower than 10/1 odds to win the championship.
The Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat and Utah Jazz are in a cluster behind them at 12/1 odds. The figures fall to 25/1 for the Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers. Odds might be even longer for the Nuggets, Clippers and Sixers, if not for the possibility Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard and Ben Simmons (or his equivalent in a trade package) could respectively return to their rotations.
I do not see another realistic contender in the league.
The Bulls are one of, if not the league’s most surprising team, a regular-season juggernaut helmed by Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan, who have respectively never made the playoffs, never won a playoff series and never been a reliable playoff weapon. Do the offseason arrivals of DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso vault a 31-win team to a title? There is no precedent for a turnaround of similar proportion.
I am not banking on Murray, Leonard or Simmons saving the Nuggets, Clippers or 76ers by the end of this season, just like I am not putting my money on Irving’s semi-availability altering Brooklyn’s title chances.
The Heat have kept pace with the leaders of the Eastern Conference pack, despite Bam Adebayo’s thumb surgery and Jimmy Butler’s third right ankle injury in his last 38 games (and second this season). A 35-year-old Kyle Lowry has been Miami’s most dependable star, which feels unsettling. The Heat would be a safer bet if Milwaukee and Brooklyn did not stand between them and even considering a return trip to the Finals.
The Lakers? Oh, we will get to them, but do not hold your breath for Russell Westbrook’s ring ceremony.
Believe it or not, the Jazz remain the safest long-shot bet to win the West and earn a title shot. After posting the NBA’s best record last season, they are nipping at the No. 1 seed’s heels again. They own the league’s best net rating. The 3.9 points per 100 possessions between their top-rated offense and the second-rated Atlanta Hawks is equal to the difference between the Hawks and the 17th-rated Dallas Mavericks. And their defense is anchored by the best rim protector alive, three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert.
Dismiss the Jazz at your own peril, and this is coming from someone who has long questioned Gobert’s playoff impact. Donovan Mitchell has been a monster since Thanksgiving, averaging a tick below 30 points per game on 49/38/88 shooting splits. Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic are shooting a combined 43% on a dozen 3-point attempts per game. Do not be surprised if Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson are better in the second half of the season. They are 10 deep with legitimately helpful players. Your defense has to be elite to slow Utah’s potent offense, and even then you have to be darn good offensively just to keep pace.
The Warriors (+450) and Suns (+800) fit that bill in the West, but why not take a flier on the Jazz, who face steeper odds to win the title and have been as good statistically as the conference’s two biggest favorites?
Prediction: The Utah Jazz are your best long-shot bet to win the 2022 title.
Ben Simmons, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James are central figures to the NBA’s home stretch in 2022. (Yahoo Sports graphic)
Who will win the MVP?
What Stephen Curry is doing for the Warriors seven years removed from his first MVP performance cannot be understated. Throwing out his 2019-20 campaign, when he missed all but five games, Curry is on pace for an eighth straight year of high-volume scoring from the guard position on true shooting better than 60%.
That only accounts for so much of what his actual impact is on Golden State’s success. The Warriors are 20 points per 100 possessions better with Curry on the court, per Cleaning the Glass, another example of the gravitational pull that makes him so special. Everyone around Curry has so much more space to operate because of how defenses have to account for his shooting, regardless of whether he has the ball.
Curry’s magnanimity empowers his teammates to be their best selves. He maximizes the skill sets of Green and Andre Iguodala in ways other teams cannot afford. Andrew Wiggins, Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica are thriving as a result in ways we only saw in spells before. Jordan Poole and Gary Payton II have seized opportunities in ways that would not have been available to them alongside more ball-dominant and less efficient superstars. You want shooters everywhere around most of Curry’s ilk. Curry is the shooting.
It has translated to the league’s best record, just as it did in 2015 and 2016, when Curry repeated as MVP.
The only players in his stratosphere this season are Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic. Durant’s brilliance has sustained the Nets, but he has not raised the collective level of his teammates in the same manner. Advanced statistics favor Antetokounmpo or Jokic, but for lesser teams (at least so far, for myriad reasons). Nobody captures the NBA zeitgeist quite like Curry when his Warriors are laying waste to the league, and that will matter to a panel that often leans into a narrative backed by statistical evidence.
Prediction: Stephen Curry is your 2022 NBA MVP.
Which team will be the most surprising not to make the playoffs?
We are not without options here.
The Hawks, following a Cinderella run to last year’s Eastern Conference finals, are as bad defensively as they are good offensively. Trae Young scored 56 points in a loss on Monday, because Anfernee Simons countered with 43, and Atlanta could not even slow the depleted Portland Trail Blazers. The Hawks are 12th in the East with a 16-20 record, a reversion to the mean between last year and their 20-win season prior.
The Boston Celtics have been hovering around .500 all season, much like they did last season, despite the presence of two All-Star-caliber wings and a host of talented players around them. There are plenty of excuses to go around, from injuries to COVID-19 protocols, questionable coaching decisions and strength of schedule, but trades will be on the horizon if they maintain this level of mediocrity — justified or not.
No team, though, has been so disappointing as the Lakers, who entered the season with two of the 10 best players in the league and the 2017 MVP. As predictably disruptive as the Russell Westbrook acquisition may have been, nobody figured it would be so disastrous that it could threaten their ability to make the playoffs.
Yet, here we are. The Lakers, despite one of the easiest schedules in the league to this point, are 20-19, seventh in a rather shallow Western Conference, owners of a bottom-10 offense and middling defense. Nine teams in the West have posted a better net rating than the Lakers’ -0.9 points per 100 possessions.
Anthony Davis suffered another injury to a left knee that has plagued him throughout his career. This is on top of his chronic shoulder problems and an injury history six pages long. Even when he was in the lineup for the Lakers, Davis was nowhere near the First Team All-NBA level he attained four times from 2015-20. He is not scheduled to be reevaluated until mid-January, when the schedule gets brutal for Los Angeles.
Only three players have had the ball in their hands more than Westbrook, who ranks 365th in effective field-goal percentage and 487th in turnover ratio, according to the league’s tracking statistics. That is not good.
As a result, LeBron James has had to carry an absurd load for a 37-year-old in his 19th season. He has assumed it with ease since losing Davis on Dec. 17, averaging a 34-10-6 on 55/40/79 shooting splits, and still the Lakers are 4-5 in that stretch, needing every bit of James’ brilliance to survive games against the Houston Rockets, Minnesota Timberwolves and Sacramento Kings. Nobody in the league has played more minutes during that span than James. This is just not a sustainable mode of operation for the Lakers.
When James has had to assume a similar burden without Davis since joining the Lakers in 2018, he has burnt himself out. They should be increasingly fearful of putting so great an onus on him, but they have no other choice at this point. Staring them in the face is a second straight trip to the play-in tournament, where younger teams will be amped to dethrone James’ Lakers at the end of three seasons that have felt like six.
Prediction: The Lakers will miss the 2022 playoffs.
Who will be the best player traded by the deadline?
Damian Lillard’s lingering abdominal injury is a growing concern. Blazers coach Chauncey Billups offered a rather dire recent prognosis, implying that a prolonged absence or surgery could be on the horizon. That would put an end to trade speculation that had already quelled since new general manager Joe Cronin’s public commitment to continued building around the beloved six-time All-Star, at least until the offseason.
Barring an overwhelming offer for Domantas Sabonis that is unlikely to come, the Indiana Pacers are more likely to deal Myles Turner, who has one fewer year left on his contract and two fewer All-Star appearances.
Beyond them, the pickings are slim for teams looking to acquire an active All-Star from an underachieving roster. Bradley Beal and Karl-Anthony Towns are chasing playoffs spots. Their teams are more inclined to build around them now than at any point over the past few years. The Boston Celtics would probably have to get one of the aforementioned stars in return for Jaylen Brown, and even then they might balk at a deal.
All of which brings us back to Ben Simmons, who has yet to play for the fifth-place Philadelphia 76ers following his offseason trade request. Sixers executive Daryl Morey has publicly suggested he would be willing to wait the entirety of the four years left on Simmons’ contract to secure equal value in a trade. No such offer has been made, and there is no reason to believe Simmons’ value will increase in his absence.
It is patently absurd to waste another year of Joel Embiid’s prime in Philadelphia waiting on Simmons, let alone four. Morey knows this. Embiid is a 7-footer approaching his 28th birthday. He has not survived a season without at least a three-week injury absence. He only has so many MVP-caliber seasons in him, and he is working on his second straight. After last year’s runner-up finish, he would be in serious consideration, if not for an extended bout with COVID and a supporting cast that is lacking anything close to starpower.
It is time to trade Simmons, regardless of whether or not the best offer approximates equal value. Anything would be better than the zero Simmons has given Philadelphia this season. More likely, the Sixers will find a deal that returns players and draft picks who can help in the playoffs now without hindering flexibility later. It may not be the star packag Morey had originally anticipated, but that train has long since left the station.
Prediction: Ben Simmons will be the biggest name traded at the 2022 deadline.
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach