Monday was Media Day around the NBA, marking the official start of training camp for the 2021-22 NBA season, the first in a couple years (knock on wood) that won’t feature a reduced or disjointed schedule and all 30 teams playing in their actual markets.
Welcome home, Toronto Raptors.
As we begin what is sure to be a season filled with important games, historic milestones, major storylines, and tremendous games, I wanted to start by looking at 10 players that are the most intriguing to me heading into the year.
First, some caveats.
LeBron James isn’t on this list because everyone is watching LeBron always and the only real intriguing surrounding LeBron this season is whether, in Year 18 and turning 37 at the end of December, “King James” will (a) remain healthy, (b) moderate his minutes, and (c) continue playing at the ridiculously high level we’ve come to expect from him year-after-year.
That sounds like a lot of intrigue, but it’s the same set of questions we’ve been asking for a couple years now, and will be discussed all season anyway, so he’s not on the list.
There aren’t any rookies on this list either though everyone selected in the Top 5 of the draft is worth keeping tabs on and likely to have at least a couple “Can we talk about how good (insert player here) might be?” moments this season.
No role players made this list either, though I think De’Andre Hunter is vitally important to Atlanta’s success this season and that Miami is going to need a big bounce back season from Tyler Herro is the Heat are going to be real contenders in the East again.
Lastly, there were some decisions about who to include and who to leave off, which is always the case when you’re making a Top 10 list and not a Top 25, but the absence of Damian Lillard, DeAndre Ayton, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jayson Tatum, and R.J. Barrett is not a reflection on how interesting they are to me this season and who closely I will be watching them this year; there just wasn’t enough room to include everyone.
With all that said, let’s get to it.
Here are my 10 Most Interesting Players heading into the 2021-22 NBA Season.
Obvious? Absolutely, but just because no one is surprised he’s included here doesn’t mean he’s not one of the most interesting players in the league as training camps open.
I’m already on record saying every team in the league should be trying to figure out how to be a part of getting Simmons out of Philadelphia because whether adding him or being a weigh station in a three-way move, it should yield positive returns, and with the 25-year-old doubling down on not playing another game for the 76ers, this story isn’t going away any time soon.
There are two reasons Simmons heads this list:
How long will he continue to hold out before relenting or Philadelphia finally dealing him?
If he does get dealt, what’s he going to look like on his new team?
There are two reasons why the above is so intriguing:
Philadelphia doesn’t have to trade him given his contract status, their championship window isn’t as wide now as it once was, and getting nothing out of Simmons or for Simmons all year lessens their chances for success, and
The range of outcomes from Simmons once he returns to the court, whenever and wherever that may be, are so wide that you can’t not pay attention
Until this situation is resolved, Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers are the most interesting story in the league.
New Orleans Pelicans
The third-year forward was already on the list after showing glimpses of dominance last season and another year of changes in New Orleans, but his status was cemented when news broke on Monday morning that Williamson underwent foot surgery in the offseason and won’t be playing in the preseason.
This already felt like an important year for Williamson and the Pelicans, as he’s playing for his third coach in as many seasons — first-year man Willie Green is at the helm — and the team made a number of roster moves in the offseason for the second straight year, replacing Eric Bledsoe and Lonzo Ball with Devonte Graham and Tomas Satoransky, and swapping out Steven Adams for Jonas Valanciunas.
And now he’s coming into the year following surgery, after doing the same in his rookie season and having last year’s campaign end prematurely due to a thumb injury.
There is no questioning Williamson’s talent and what he delivers when he’s on the court, but at what point do we start to worry about his ability to stay healthy and his unique skills translating into meaningful team success on the court?
Porzingis is only 26, but his days as the potential savior of the New York Knickerbockers or a potential superstar moved to Dallas for nowhere near enough are faded memories.
In theory, he’s a tremendous wingman to Luka Doncic — a floor-spacer who can hit from distance, but also roll through the lane on high screens, and someone that can shoulder the offensive load when the superstar guard is resting. The tandem has been wildly inconsistent, in part due to injuries, but also because Porzingis hasn’t been overly eager to accept being the Robin to Doncic’s Batman.
He sees himself as the 1B to the Slovenian’s 1A, when it’s more of a “Luka is 1, KP is 2, and all these other cats will take turns being 3” and if the towering Latvian can accept that and stay healthy, this team could thrive.
Dallas has solid pieces and has been frisky in the first-round each of the last two years, but with Doncic now in Year 3, the time for capitalizing on his rookie deal and making a run is now, and Porzingis is the key.
Michael Porter Jr.
Michael Porter Jr. averaged 19 points and 7.3 rebounds last year as the third, maybe fourth option in Denver most of the time, shooting 54.2% from the floor and 44.5% from deep as a 22-year-old.
With Jamal Murray sidelined indefinitely after suffering a torn ACL in the playoffs, the former No. 1 recruit in the country has the opportunity to become an even more integral piece of the offence and greater overall contributor to the success of the Nuggets this season, and there will be plenty of people watching intently to see if that happens.
Scoring is never going to be an issue for the 6’10” forward — he has a smooth stroke, can get to the rim, and doesn’t need a ton of shots in order to make an impact.
What will dictate whether he takes the next step and ascends to the “Budding Superstar” tier this season is his defense. His length and athleticism says he could be a factor on that end of the court, but we haven’t seen it consistently yet.
If he makes a similar progression from Year 3 to Year 4 as he did from Year 2 to Year 3, Porter Jr. could be an all-star and usurp Murray’s position as the No. 2 man on this team behind reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.
Oh, and he just received a massive contract from Denver. That adds more intrigue when the pay rate goes through the ceiling.
Toronto is a bit of an afterthought in the larger NBA conversation, but as a Canadian, let me tell you that no player will be under more scrutiny up here this season than Siakam.
Not only is he coming off a down year that included a publicized spat with head coach Nick Nurse, but this is Year One of AK — After Kyle — and as the longest tenured Raptor, Siakam is being counted on as a leader, on and off the court.
His production dipped last season and he shot below 30% from deep, which is concerning, however there have been myriad reports detailing how no one was more impacted by the Orlando Bubble and playing in Tampa all last season than Siakam, so there is optimism that a return to “The Six” and familiar routines will bring about a return to his previous all-star levels.
Maybe I’m being a bit of a homer, but the Raptors have a chance to be frisky, while also being in the midst of what feels like a quick pivot to a younger, more dynamic roster, and an up-tempo, suffocating defense and run in transition approach could allow Siakam to thrive.
And if he doesn’t, there will be plenty of conversations about the massive extension he signed ahead of the 2019-20 season that has three years and more than $100M remaining.
Los Angeles Lakers
It’s mandatory that a member of the Lakers appear on this list because you’re not allowed to have NBA discussions without including the Lakers in some way, shape, or form.
Here’s the thing: Westbrook might be the perfect player to inject into this Lakers lineup for the regular season, and the absolute worst guy you could want to have on a title contender led by LeBron James comes playoff time, and seeing how that plays out is going to be one of the most fascinating pieces of this season.
Westbrook’s maniacal approach on the floor should mean increased rest and less offensive burden on LeBron (and Anthony Davis) this season, giving the Lakers a chance to not be awful without LBJ on the floor. He’s averaged a triple-double in four of the last fives seasons, led the league in assists last year for the third time in four years, and remains the captain of the “No Days Off” crew.
But he can’t shoot, and more importantly, Westbrook hasn’t figured out that being incapable of shooting means he shouldn’t be the guy taking big shots in key moments because doing so doesn’t help his team. He shouldn’t have as many of those opportunities this season with James and Davis on the court for all the important moments, but then will the lack of touches and being a tertiary option lead to Westbrook being less engaged at times?
This is going to be so fascinating to watch.
Who is Ja Morant as a player? What’s his destiny?
Those are the two questions I’m asking myself heading into this season and why the third-year point guard makes this list.
On one hand, Morant is clearly one of the top young lead guards in the league — a lightning quick, explosive athlete coming off a season where he averaged 19 PPG — but on the other hand, his shooting numbers dipped more than a little last season and he kind of gives me Russell Westbrook vibes, which — to be clear — isn’t a compliment.
Now to be fair, Memphis has dealt with a bunch of injuries during Morant’s first two seasons, and they made the playoffs last season, beating Golden State in the play-in tournament before getting beat 4-1 by Utah in the opening round. The Grizzlies are the quintessential “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” squad, but they need Morant to level up this season if they have any hope of being more than the scrappy little team that could this year or in years to come.
If Morant can take a step forward, Memphis has the potential to take a step forward and, best-case scenario, avoid the play-in tournament. But if he doesn’t, you have to start wondering if Morant is destined to be a guy that puts up solid stats on a consistently under-achieving, non-playoff team.
That’s a lot to ask of a third-year player, but given how quickly some of his contemporaries have lifted their teams to playoff appearances and success, the clock is ticking on Morant to do the same.
Speaking of players putting up quality stats on constantly underwhelming teams…
This is Year 7 for Towns, who has dealt with a tremendous amount of personal tragedy off the court in recent years, and seemingly constant upheaval throughout his career with the Timberwolves, including the firing of director of basketball operations Gersson Rosas last week, which prompted a “WTF” tweet from the star big man.
With all of that under consideration, this is a critical year for Towns, who has been to the playoffs once, three seasons ago when Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau were in town, which feels like a lifetime ago.
The reason Towns is on this list is two-fold:
This feels like a make-or-break year in terms of his showing he can elevate a team to greater overall success, rather than just posting big numbers and missing the playoffs, but also
He seems poised to be the next superstar to make a “Get Me Out of Here” demand, which would instantly trigger a ton of conversations about his value and impact, and innumerable hypothetical trade discussions.
Give the mid-season coaching change last year, jettisoning Rosas a week before training camp opens after he was in control of the team’s entire offseason, and the increased pressure on Towns and the Wolves to perform, this should be an interesting situation to monitor this year.
Los Angeles Clippers
PG was a force for the Clippers in the playoffs last season, elevating his game to an incredible level once Kawhi Leonard went down and silencing any lingering snickers about his self-given “Playoff P” nickname once and for all.
Now everyone is interested in seeing if he can do it for an entire season, as Leonard is unlike to play until late this year — if at all — after suffering a torn ACL last summer.
The Clippers made some changes during the offseason, bringing in Eric Bledsoe and Justice Winslow, re-signing Reggie Jackson, drafting Keon Johnson, and should expect increased contributions from Terrance Mann after he showed flashes in the playoffs, but their success or failure this season hinges on George.
He played at an MVP level in his final year in Oklahoma City, averaging a career-high 28 PPG while leading the league in steals and producing a full stat line, and if he can deliver something similar, the Clippers will once again be a factor in the Western Conference.
This is his opportunity to be the lead man on a team with moderate to high expectations, and how he responds is going to be fascinating to watch because despite his efforts last postseason, you know if he struggles, everyone is going to go right back to making jokes at his expense.
Kevin Durant is the best player on the team, but James Harden is the one that will dictate whether the Nets win a championship this season.
Everyone witnessed Durant’s Herculean efforts against Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Semifinals last season, where he nearly single-handedly carried the Nets passed the eventual NBA champions, but that effort isn’t needed if Harden doesn’t blow a tire seconds into the series.
Everything comes down to health with Harden — if he’s healthy all season, Brooklyn are the favorites to win the title (quiet Lakers fans!) and each of the team’s three superstars (Harden, Durant, Kyrie Irving) can rotate through rest days without worrying about the team ceding too much ground in the standings.
Irving is a question mark this year, for multiple reasons, as he seems to be every year now, but a full season with Harden and Durant playing off one another, playing with one another, sharing the load could get Harden back to the Finals for the first time since he, Durant, and Westbrook played together in Oklahoma City.
Expectations are high in Brooklyn — and around the league for the Nets as well — and whether this team can reach those expectations hinges on Harden.