B/R Staff Roundtable: 1 Hot Take for Every NBA Team After First Week
One week into the 2021-22 NBA season, it's time to fire up the "take" cannon.
Yes, sample sizes are too small for sweeping takeaways. Yes, our perceptions of teams and players can change dramatically from game to game over the first few weeks of the season. But, no, it's not too early for some precarious prognostication based on real observations.
Could some of these predictions and takes find themselves on shaky ground in a few weeks? Sure, but we do have some evidence to back the following up. And that's plenty to justify stepping out to the analysis ledge during this early portion of 2021-22.
Hot Take: Trae Young will finish top-five in MVP voting
The Hawks have the top-level talent and the depth to build on last season's breakthrough, and Trae Young will be at the epicenter of their success. He is their unquestioned leader as a scorer and setup artist, and a 30-point, 10-assist season average isn't entirely out of reach.
If Atlanta holds a top-four seed when the curtains drop on this campaign, Young's pull on MVP voters will be tangible. His defensive deficiencies will deny him the award—and maybe a spot among the three finalists—but he can certainly score, shoot and pass his way to a top-five finish.
Hot Take: Jayson Tatum will lead the NBA in scoring this season
Jayson Tatum, entering his fifth NBA season, has shown steady growth as a big-time scorer. His scoring average has improved every season, beginning at 13.6 points per game as a rookie to 26.4 points last season, which was tied for the 10th-highest average in the league.
This season, undeniable factors should result in a notable boost to Tatum's scoring. Jaylen Brown, Boston's No. 2 scorer, is dealing with tendinitis in his left knee and has already missed one game because of it. He acknowledged he had lingering knee problems last year, and there's the potential that may be an issue once again. That means more of the team scoring load will fall upon Tatum's shoulders, which will, not surprisingly, result in him continuing his ascension to the top of the NBA scoring heap this season.
Hot Take: The Nets will begin the playoffs on the road
Even without Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets should still be the team to beat in the East. But it's looking as though the road they'll have to take to get there will be much bumpier than expected.
The fact that they lost two of their first three games isn't reason enough for Nets fans to be concerned. It's how they're losing and, more specifically, how the struggles in the first few games likely won't dissipate quickly. We have seen the NBA's new rule changes impact many, but none more than James Harden. A free-throw magnet for most of his career, Harden is getting to the line just three times per game thus far. Without those trips to the line, Harden's impact and Brooklyn's overall flow will indeed take a step back.
He's one of the best in the game when it comes to scoring, and he will eventually figure out a way to get his share of points. But in the meantime, it'll cost the Nets a few games, which will open the door for defending NBA champion Milwaukee and a handful of other teams in the East to move ahead of them in the standings.
Hot Take: The Hornets will have their first All-Star in three years—and their second
If Buzz City stock is trading anywhere, buy as much as you can get. The Hornets look legitimately good, and they hold a sneaky-high spot in the NBA's entertainment rankings, which is a killer combination for garnering All-Star support.
The Hornets haven't had a representative at the game since Kemba Walker in 2019, but they can snap their drought with a pair of selections this season. LaMelo Ball oozes stardom from his stats to his style, and reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week Miles Bridges is evolving into a do-it-all threat who keeps the highlight reels spinning.
Hot Take: Bulls are a true title contender
Coming into the season, the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks received most of the love when it came to picking an Eastern Conference favorite, even over a Bulls team that vastly improved its roster this offseason.
After a 4-0 start, Chicago looks like a bona fide contender, especially with the Kyrie Irving-less Nets (2-2) stumbling out of the gate. While the Bulls offense was expected to take off with the additions of DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, it's actually the defense that's carried the team.
Zach LaVine could get some real MVP love if Chicago's hot start continues, and Ball looks like he's finally found the perfect environment to grow his game. If the defense is legit and Coby White makes a healthy return to the court, the Bulls have a real chance to win a championship.
Hot Take: Evan Mobley will be the team's best player before the end of his rookie season
Now in Year 4 of their rebuild, the Cavs have assembled some good, young players with Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro, Lauri Markkanen and Jarrett Allen. Despite their experience, it's actually the 20-year-old rookie Mobley who will quickly stand out as the team's best player.
Mobley already looks like an outstanding defender just a few games into his career, showing the ability to shut down Trae Young on the perimeter before sticking close enough to him on a drive to swat his shot at the basket. Even at 7'0", he's got the athleticism to defend anywhere on the court at a high level.
The No. 3 overall pick is also averaging 14.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 steals and 2.0 blocks and is shooting 55 percent overall in his first four games. Given what he brings to the table on both ends, Mobley will be considered the Cavaliers' best player by year's end, if not sooner.
Hot Take: Kristaps Porzingis won't finish the season as a Maverick
If Kristaps Porzingis had decent trade value, this would be pretty lukewarm. After a 2021-22 campaign where the fit between him and Luka Doncic looked clunky, at best, KP is off to an ice-cold start this season. Jason Kidd may be intent on restoring Porzingis' unicorn status, but he'll learn before long that the best path to decent offense with Luka is high pick-and-rolls with a good rim runner and shooters spreading the floor.
KP wants a little more responsibility within the offense, including post-ups like he experienced during his days in the triangle. The problem, of course, is that play type is nowhere near as efficient as Luka's bread and butter (again, the pick-and-roll).
Removing the tension that comes with figuring out Porzingis' role might require removing him altogether. It just might be difficult to find a taker. Porzingis is only 26 years old, but he has a troubling injury history, two years and $69.8 million left on his contract after this one (assuming he picks up a $36 million player option) and looks much slower on defense than he did in his first few seasons. The allure of the stretch 5 has to intrigue at least one team out there, though.
Hot Take: If fully healthy, Denver will win the West
We can't fully evaluate the Nuggets until Jamal Murray is back, which won't happen until midseason at the earliest. But what we've seen so far suggests Denver is as dangerous as any team in the West.
Nikola Jokic is picking up right where he left off in his MVP campaign, Aaron Gordon continues to fit in nicely just as he did after he was traded to Denver midseason, and Michael Porter Jr. is shooting well. Before Murray's injury last year, the Nuggets were a trendy pick to go to the Finals. If he's back in time for the playoffs this year, it's time to pick that talk back up.
Hot Take: It's time to bench Killian Hayes
Hayes had a rough rookie campaign after being selected No. 7 overall by the Pistons, playing just 26 games in an injury-shortened season. When on the court, he looked like one of the worst offensive players in the NBA, averaging just 6.8 points on 35.3 percent shooting overall and 27.8 percent from three.
Given his injuries and a COVID-shortened season, Hayes had to be better in Year 2, right?
So far, Hayes has been even worse, putting up 6.3 points and shooting 18.2 percent from deep in summer league (!) before making just one total shot (on 11 attempts) in his first two games to begin the 2021-22 season before going 4-of-11 in his third game.
While Hayes was selected to be the team's franchise point guard, it's time to bench the 20-year-old and try to develop him more slowly in the second unit. Just 29 games into his career, Hayes is already flirting with a bust label.
Golden State Warriors
Hot Take: The Golden State Warriors won't make the play-in...
The Warriors played twice in last year's play-in tournaments, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies to see their season end abruptly. This year, the Warriors won't make the play-in at all.
Instead, they'll easily lock in one of the top-six playoff seeds.
The Warriors are quite good, and that's before getting Klay Thompson back after a couple of years with knee and Achilles injuries. The emergence of Jordan Poole as a primary scorer, along with the additions of solid veterans like Nemanja Bjelica and Otto Porter Jr., give Stephen Curry enough to compete with almost anyone in the NBA.
When Klay returns, the Warriors may even be strong enough to land at least one round of playoff home-court advantage.
Hot Take: Jalen Green becomes the sixth rookie to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists
Rockets rookie Jalen Green is averaging 16.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. Bumping all those numbers up to the benchmarks above won't be easy, particularly the assists. But as the season progresses, Green becomes more comfortable against this level of competition and Houston leans a bit harder into the tank, his production should tick up.
Through three games, veterans like D.J. Augustin, Eric Gordon and Christian Wood are getting plenty of opportunities to create from scratch and use up possessions. Houston is going to fade down the standings, and so will the responsibilities of those players. Before long, one or more could start sitting entire games (much like John Wall, who's already been shut down for the season).
Green will still have to share the court and the offense with guys like Kevin Porter Jr. and Alperen Sengun, but his numbers are going to rise. And to reach his full potential, Houston needs to experiment with his on-ball and playmaking abilities.
Hot Take: Domantas Sabonis is a top-three power forward in the NBA
With averages of 24.8 points, 12.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.3 steals and shooting marks of 62.9 percent overall and 40 percent from three and coming off back-to-back All-Star appearances, how many power forwards can we still stay are better than Sabonis?
The answer is two, with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis the only names worthy of being atop the list. With apologies to Zion Williamson, Julius Randle, Draymond Green, Pascal Siakam and John Collins, Sabonis is worthy of being No. 3.
As one of the best passing big men in the NBA whose outside shooting was his only offensive weakness (until this year, at least), it's time we give Sabonis the recognition he deserves, yet doesn't receive, while playing for the Pacers.
Los Angeles Clippers
Hot Take: Paul George wins the scoring title
The Clippers aren't the same contender with Kawhi Leonard out indefinitely with a knee injury this season, but the team still has an elite scorer to rely on in Paul George. His hot start to the season won't subside.
The Clippers have a solid roster with capable complementary pieces. The franchise will need to get through the play-in tournament to make the playoffs, but George will give them a shot while averaging over 30 points per game on the season.
Los Angeles Lakers
Hot Take: Austin Reaves: rotation staple
Lakers fans were generally irate when the team let Alex Caruso walk in free agency to the Chicago Bulls. The low-maintenance role player has already begun to build another cult following in Chicago. Meanwhile, the Lakers have started slowly, clearly missing Caruso's defense and unselfish play.
Enter rookie Austin Reaves, who signed with the Lakers immediately after he went undrafted in July. Coach Frank Vogel didn't play Reaves in the Lakers' first loss, but he had Reaves defending a scorching-hot Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies by the team's third game. Reaves has a lot to learn before he's at Caruso's level, but he's already a viable defender, playmaker and shooter who will earn a regular role in the rotation.
Hot Take: Ja Morant will make the All-Star team
Given Ja Morant's averages of 35.0 points and 8.0 assists and his 44.4 three-point percentage through three games, this might not feel like much of a hot take. Consider the wealth of talent among Western Conference guards, though.
Leapfrogging Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Mike Conley or Donovan Mitchell won't be easy. And those are just the ones who made it last season. There will be other contenders who rise alongside Morant.
The makeup of the Grizzlies roster should help Ja continue to put up absurd numbers, though. Thirty-five and eight is probably out of the question, but there are no other high-volume scorers around him. If he's in the mid-20s for points, near 10 in assists and Memphis is in the playoff hunt, he should get an All-Star nod.
Hot Take: Tyler Herro is Miami's alpha scorer and will be NBA Sixth Man of the Year
Tyler Herro isn't the most talented player on the Heat, but he is the most preprogrammed to score. Armed with a quick-strike sixth-man role that fits him like a tailored, drippy draft-night suit, he's positioned to remind the hoops world of the offensive prowess that first surfaced during his bubble breakout.
In Miami's first two games, Herro scored 57 points. The Heat's next-closest player was Jimmy Butler with 40. Impressively, Herro had nearly as big of a lead in field-goal attempts with 46 to Butler's 32.
Miami's stars are just as comfortable (if not more so) creating for others as they are finding their own shots, which gives Herro an opening to shoulder the heaviest scoring load. He has the arsenal and the opportunity to clear 20 points per night. If the Heat are at least the third seed in the East, that will be enough to net Herro the Sixth Man of the Year hardware.
Hot Take: Giannis Antetokounmpo should be a full-time center
The thought of Antetokounmpo playing center when he originally entered the league as a scrawny 190-pound forward in 2013 would have been laughable. Now, 51-plus pounds of muscle later and with a 6'11", 242-pound frame, there's no reason why the two-time MVP can't play in today's paint full-time.
Surrounding Antetokounmpo with shooters is a recipe for success, and watching opposing centers try to guard him on the perimeter would be laughable as he blows by and takes two steps to get to the basket.
His size and strength would allow him to defend most centers as well, something he already does on a part-time basis. The Bucks should consider benching Brook Lopez and starting Antetokounmpo at center (with Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen, Khris Middleton and Bobby Portis) to maximize their offense.
Hot Take: Anthony Edwards will be an All-Star this year
Edwards had some eye-popping moments in his rookie season but struggled with consistency. Thus far in the young season, we've seen the best version of what he could be capable of.
He had 29 points and shot 6-of-12 from three-point range in the Timberwolves' season-opening win over the Rockets, and he sparked a third-quarter comeback against the Pelicans on Monday that ultimately fell short (he finished with 28 points).
If the Timberwolves continue to be competitive, Edwards will be making his first career All-Star appearance in his second season in the league.
New Orleans Pelicans
Hot Take: New Orleans doomed itself in the offseason by unloading Lonzo Ball
The Pelicans finally notched their first win of the season Monday, but the decision to move on from Lonzo Ball looks like one of the offseason's worst.
The Bulls are now 4-0, with Lonzo averaging 14.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.8 blocks. He's a team-best plus-12.5 per game. Garrett Temple and Tomas Satoransky, the players New Orleans traded Ball for, have combined for a total of 13 points and four assists.
Zion Williamson hasn't played yet, but the Pelicans also ditched some valuable chemistry there. Over their two seasons together, New Orleans was plus-5.8 points per 100 possessions when Zion and Lonzo shared the floor and minus-2.2 when Zion played without Lonzo. With things already looking tenuous on Zion's future free-agency front, this move could prove costly for years to come.
New York Knicks
Hot Take: Julius Randle will finish top-five in MVP voting
Last season, Julius Randle was one of the NBA's breakout stars as he led the Knicks back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. When you look at the additions they've made, they should be even better this year.
But Randle's place as the head of the Knicks attack remains as it was last season. And that success he enjoyed was instrumental in New York's return to basketball relevance.
For Randle, it led to him being a first-time All-Star in addition to finishing eighth in the league MVP voting. An improved Knicks team recordwise coupled with comparable stats to last season will result in the 26-year-old finishing in the top five in MVP voting.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Hot Take: The Thunder could be as bad as 'The Process' Sixers
Unsurprisingly, the Thunder started the year 0-3. They're going to take a lot of losses for the second consecutive year, and unlike last year's other worst teams, they didn't come away with one of the rookies widely believed to be a future star.
As good as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is, and as intriguing as some of Oklahoma City's other prospects are long term, there isn't a lot here to suggest the Thunder will win more games than anyone. This team is going to be bad.
Hot Take: A rookie is already their most important player, and it's not Jalen Suggs
Theoretically, the Magic are built to follow the lead of Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz, whenever they're healthy enough to return from their respective knee surgeries. They also have a handful of recent lottery picks, none more celebrated than this year's No. 5 pick, Jalen Suggs.
But it's the player taken three picks later, swingman Franz Wagner, making the biggest waves in Disney's backyard. He's already an impact defender, and his do-it-all offensive bag has yielded conversion rates of 48.9 percent from the field and 35.0 percent from distance.
Does he have the highest ceiling of anyone on the roster? That might be up for debate. However, he looks like the easiest to build around with a complementary skill set that shows a tiny number of holes for a 20-year-old. That's enough to move him front and center of what looks like it could be a long rebuild.
Hot Take: Seth Curry will be the NBA's Most Improved Player this season
The 31-year-old Seth Curry has been around the NBA long enough to the point where there's little about his game that's surprising. He's part of the Curry lineage, which means he's not afraid or hesitant to shoot over and over again. And with Ben Simmons' uncertain future with the franchise, Curry is looked upon to be more impactful as a scorer.
Thus far, he has responded well to the challenge with a career-high 20.3 points per game. While it's too soon to tell if he can consistently score 20-plus points, the opportunity to do so has never been greater.
Hot Take: Deandre Ayton will earn his max contract from the Suns
The Phoenix Suns had the opportunity to sign Ayton to an extension before the season began but couldn't reach a deal. Ayton was looking for a max contract. The Suns weren't ready to go that far.
Phoenix will remain a playoff contender this season. While it's not a lock the Suns return to the NBA Finals, Ayton will provide a consistent inside force both offensively and defensively for the franchise. When the time comes for Ayton in restricted free agency, the Suns will spend what they need on the young center.
Portland Trail Blazers
Hot Take: CJ McCollum will make his first All-Star team
Since Mike Conley Jr. was named an injury replacement last year, McCollum has taken over the mantle of "best player in the NBA who has never been an All-Star." He likely would have made it last season if he didn't suffer a foot injury. This year, year nine, is his chance.
McCollum has been stellar to start the year, scoring 34 in the Blazers' season opener, 28 in Saturday's win over the Suns and 20 (4-of-11 from deep) in Monday's loss to the Clippers. He's been doing most of the heavy lifting as Damian Lillard has struggled shooting to start the year. Barring an injury, he will be rewarded with his first career All-Star appearance.
Hot Take: Kings make a big in-season trade
The Kings are haven't made the playoffs since they had Mike Bibby and Metta World Peace (nee Ron Artest) back in 2005-06. They've gone through several lottery picks and undoubtedly boast a talented roster this season. General manager Monte McNair will make a big move before the trade deadline to bolster their postseason goal.
While it's difficult to lock who they succeed in targeting, there's a guy in Philadephia who adamantly wants to relocate in Ben Simmons. A team like the 76ers may covet players like De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton, but the Kings aren't likely to give away either. Instead, Sacramento may get a blockbuster done while keeping both.
San Antonio Spurs
Hot Take: The Spurs will make the play-in tournament
Right now, FiveThirtyEight's projection system forecasts the Spurs to finish 12th in the Western Conference, two spots shy of the play-in tournament. At least one team ahead of them in that system, the Pelicans, appears to be on dangerously shaky ground. With no timetable for Zion Williamson's return, it's easy to see them digging a hole they can't get out of. Another team in front of San Antonio, the Clippers, figures to be without Kawhi Leonard for most (if not all) of the season.
The Spurs, meanwhile, aren't missing any stars. That would be impossible, since they don't have any, but this team is relatively deep, healthy and operating within a system that dominated the league for two decades.
If even two or three of Keldon Johnson, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Doug McDermott, Lonnie Walker, Jakob Poeltl or Devin Vassell outperform expectations, San Antonio can crack the top 10.
Hot Take: Pascal Siakam will be on another roster by the trade deadline
Injuries and inconsistent play have been part of the Pascal Siakam narrative lately. He has yet to make his season debut because of a shoulder injury suffered in May.
Although last season snapped Toronto's seven-year streak of postseason appearances, Siakam was productive with 21.4 points per game. His statistics last season for the most part were comparable to what he did in 2019-20 when he was named to his first All-Star team. But as the Raptors look to rebuild toward being a playoff contender, trading Siakam may become part of that process.
Siakam will continue to draw interest around the league, and his potential departure becomes more palatable for the Raptors when you look at the emergence of OG Anunoby, Chris Boucher and rookie sensation Scottie Barnes.
Hot Take: Utah will be the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference again
There's no clear favorite at the top of the Western Conference this year. All of the other contenders have questions they're going to have to answer as the year progresses or key players they're waiting to get back from injury.
The Jazz, meanwhile, have continuity on their side, bringing back mostly the same group that had the West's top record last season and upgrading the bench with Rudy Gay. It remains to be seen whether they'll have more success in the playoffs this year, but they're the safest pick to be the No. 1 seed once again.
Hot Take: If Deni Avdija has a trade market, the Wizards should explore it
It's admittedly early to bail on a prospect with fewer than 60 career outings, but Deni Avdija is doing nothing to live up to his billing as the "steal" of the 2020 draft. He offers theoretical versatility, but he looks more like a player without a standout skill. Other than some decent work on the glass, his stat sheet is one big snoozer.
For the second straight season, he's an anonymous face in the Wizards' wing rotation. Maybe the fit isn't right—his secondary ball-handling gets a little wasted on an offense that runs through Bradley Beal and Spencer Dinwiddie—but Avdija is already giving off some Troy Brown Jr. 2.0 vibes.
Washington waited two-plus seasons before dealing Brown in a three-teamer that brought back Daniel Gifford (surprisingly good get) and Chandler Hutchison (yawn). If Avdija's age and hypothetical upside give him more trade value, it's not too soon for the Wizards to start exploring his market.