B/R Staff Predictions: 2022 NBA Champion and Finals MVP
Tuesday marks the start of the 2022 NBA play-in tournament, but here at Bleacher Report, we're already flipping the calendar to June.
B/R asked five NBA experts to jump ahead and predict which teams land in June's Finals, who wins the title, and which player walks away with Finals MVP.
Here's a look at how our experts see the postseason playing out. Check out the final tally on each prediction at the end.
Same Showdown, Same Result
Sean Highkin's Picks
Not only are the reigning champions in both conferences the best and most complete teams, but they're also the ones with the fewest question marks. Every other would-be contender in the West Conference is facing questions about the health of key players—Stephen Curry for the Warriors, Ja Morant for the Grizzlies, Luka Doncic for the Mavericks. Without knowing their availability or shape, it's hard to pick any of them over the Phoenix Suns in a series.
Similarly, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks have a pretty ideal path through the Eastern Conference. They easily outclass the Bulls, their first-round matchup, and have to feel confident against any combination of Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia or Miami they'll play after that. We've seen Giannis Antetokounmpo dominate these teams already, and the championship hangover that plagues some teams hasn't really affected the Bucks. They've coasted at times, but that's because they know this is what really matters and are ready to make another run.
The Suns acquitted themselves well in last year's Finals against the Bucks and came back even better this year. If they were to win the title, it wouldn't be surprising. This team is deep and talented enough to do it, but it's hard not to give deference to the defending champions. Milwaukee still has the best player in the series, and their biggest question mark of the regular season, Brook Lopez's health, is no longer an issue. It will be another great series between these two teams, but when they're locked in, Milwaukee is still the team to beat.
Antetokounmpo put up 50 points in the close-out game of last year's Finals, one of the greatest performances in NBA history. He's come back even better this year, and there's no reason to doubt he has another legendary run in him. He's proved he's that guy on this stage.
Same Showdown, New Result
Dan Favale's Picks
Picking the Suns to come out of the West was easier than expected, even as someone who predicted them to do so before the season ever started. Phoenix is a machine at both ends, and four of their most important players—Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Deandre Ayton and Cameron Johnson—are measurably better than they were last year. A healthy Chris Paul is no longer a lifeline; he's more like their ticket to inevitability.
Alternative threats in the West feel scant if we're being honest. I don't trust the Grizzlies offense to be playoff-proof, and Luka Doncic's injury already threatens to upend the Mavericks. The Warriors are dangerous with this version of Klay Thompson paired beside Draymond Green and a healthy Stephen Curry. However, the Suns, while not as athletic or in-your-face disruptive, are by far the more complete team.
Milwaukee, meanwhile, is the safest bet out east. I'd pick the Raptors if I had any gall. Miami's half-court offense looks flimsy at times. Boston's own offense still seems beatable. Don't get me started on Brooklyn.
The Bucks are shallower than last year. They also have Giannis Antetokounmpo. And they're slaughtering opponents when he shares the court with Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton.
Though the Bucks are still built to give the Suns problems with their length and explosion, this isn't last year—as of now, anyway.
Phoenix is more equipped to play at different speeds, and Bridges, Ayton and Johnson have all diversified their games enough to serve as release valves when the offense bogs down. Basically, what the Suns continue to lack in rim pressure, they offset with variability.
To the Bucks' credit, they have the higher-end star power. Giannis Antetokounmpo will be the best player in any series, and he's paired with two co-stars. But Milwaukee's depth starts to peter out pretty quickly.
Brook Lopez is a wild card, having just returned from a back injury that cost him most of the season. George Hill's status is perpetually in doubt. Bobby Portis' defense has its limitations in the playoffs. In the end, there's just something about a team needing to rely on Pat Connaughton and Grayson Allen that seems off.
Chris Paul has received more credit than anyone for the Suns' rise over the past two seasons, and he'll no doubt play a critical role in any title run. But Booker is the star who toggles between two existences—complementing CP3 and directing the show himself—and his change-of-acceleration shot creation figures to be a more pivotal tipping point in a series that'll see the Bucks look to exploit Phoenix's lack of downhill jet fuel.
A New Team Rises from the East
A. Sherrod Blakely's Picks
Since the start of February, the Boston Celtics have been the best team in the league. Jayson Tatum has evolved from a young talent on the rise into one of the game's top performers and a likely All-NBA selection this season. But Boston's ascension is fueled by a top-ranked defense led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Marcus Smart.
If the Celtics are fortunate enough to make it to the NBA Finals, look for last season's Finals runner-up, the Phoenix Suns, to be there waiting for them. There has been no team out West that has been as consistently strong as the Suns this season. Even when their leader Chris Paul missed significant time late in the season with an injury, Phoenix did not miss a beat, which is why they will be back in the NBA Finals this year as the prohibitive favorite regardless of the opponent.
After 54 years in the NBA, the Phoenix Suns will finally claim their first NBA title. The secret sauce to their success during the Finals will remind us all how they set a franchise record for wins (64) this season.
Phoenix can crush you at either end of the floor, as evidenced by them being the only team in the NBA this season to rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive ratings.
Having that kind of elite balance is what puts them over the top and finally ends the basketball championship drought in the desert.
The Devin Booker we've seen lighting up arena scoreboards all season does so much more for the Suns when it comes to winning. In addition to his elite scoring, Booker has added strong defense, excellent playmaking and improved leadership to his tool belt of talents.
Because of his ability to impact the series on all levels at both ends of the floor, he will be the runaway winner of Finals MVP this year.
Chris Paul's Time to Shine
Eric Pincus' Picks
The Phoenix Suns are the runaway best overall team through the regular season, and while upstarts like the Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks and others may hope to get through to the NBA Finals, Phoenix will get past its only true threat in the Golden State Warriors.
The Eastern Conference will be a gauntlet with several viable challengers. The Milwaukee Bucks will have to get through the Boston Celtics, one of the hottest teams over the second half of the season. Once they do, in what will be a long series, Milwaukee will only have to face one of its two most formidable opponents in the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers. Milwaukee will have to survive a gauntlet in the East, but its championship experience will be enough to provide a 2020-21 Finals rematch.
The Suns fell flat in last year's Finals, but the franchise gained invaluable knowledge and experience that will translate to a better performance against the Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a problem for the entire league, and he won't be an easy opponent for Phoenix. Injuries were more of a factor for the Suns last July (notably Chris Paul). The veteran point guard recently returned from a thumb injury, but the time off will be a blessing in disguise.
The Suns are on a mission. The Bucks will push them, but the series will end in six games with Phoenix as the victor.
Paul will cap off his Hall of Fame career with an NBA Finals Most Valuable Player. While Devin Booker is an elite scorer, it will be Paul's leadership that propels the Suns to the title. Paul will specifically excel in the clutch as one of the league's best closers. Antetokounmpo may be the MVP in Milwaukee, but the series MVP will go to Paul and the future champion Suns.
C's Have an X-Factor
Andy Bailey's Picks
A rematch between the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks feels like the safest bet here, and sportsbooks are currently reflecting that. But if the Boston Celtics get Robert Williams back at some point this postseason (it looks like that could happen), don't count them out.
Boston actually finished the season with the league's best simple rating system (SRS combines point differential and strength of schedule). And when Williams shared the floor with star wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics were a whopping plus-21.1 points per 100 possessions.
Add the passing and steady defensive contributions of Marcus Smart and Al Horford to that mix, and you have one of the game's very best and most balanced starting fives. In the postseason, when rotations tighten up, that's enough to make a Finals run.
We've seen this story before. The Miami Heat had to lose in 2011 to have the necessary hunger to win it all in 2012 and 2013. The same goes for the San Antonio Spurs in 2014. Most teams and players have to go through some kind of refiner's fire before securing a championship.
Chris Paul's survived about as many challenges as a player can. The rest of the Suns went through one with him last summer, and the heartbreak of losing in the Finals to the Bucks seems to have spurred them on to the best record in the league in 2021-22.
Fueled by past disappointments, Kobe-like competitiveness from Devin Booker and nearly unparalleled depth up and down the roster, the Suns will finally break through in 2022.
If Phoenix wins it all, we can probably count on one of their All-NBA quality guards winning Finals MVP. And with the way Chris Paul has meticulously dominated clutch situations this season, he's probably a good bet.
The Giannis Legend Continues to Grow
Grant Hughes' Picks
The Golden State Warriors were as good as anyone in the West when Stephen Curry and Draymond Green were healthy at the same time, and they have the best chance to give the Phoenix Suns a run for the conference crown. But there's no scenario where anyone but Phoenix should be the favorite to reach the Finals.
Phoenix is just a machine—one of those rare operations where all the components function in harmony to produce an inevitable result: wins. When a club cooks its conference as thoroughly as the Suns did this past season, finishing at least seven games ahead of the No. 2 seed in the standings, a championship follows.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks didn't run away with the East, instead finishing third in the conference with 51 wins, 13 fewer than Phoenix. The Bucks, though, have fewer questions to answer than the rest of the East's upper crust. We've seen Milwaukee go all the way before, which also helps, and all the key contributors from that run (save P.J. Tucker) are on hand and healthy.
Antetokounmpo averaged 35.2 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists while making 61.8 percent of his shots from the field in last year's Finals against the Suns. Other than the fact that it's very, very hard to put up numbers like those, it's difficult to come up with a reason why Antetokounmpo—and by extension, the Bucks—will perform worse in their return to the Finals.
If Phoenix had made any major roster additions or seen one of its key players make a leap, maybe there'd be a reason to believe it could raise its level from 2021.
In the end, I think the Suns' gaudy win total only proves they're a better regular-season team than they were a year ago—not that they've evolved in a way that makes them a more dangerous Finals participant.
The Bucks still have the best player in Antetokounmpo, and I don't see the Suns stopping him.
If Antetokounmpo truly is a generational superstar, this is a championship he wins. The greats tend to reinforce their first title with a second.
We're reverse-engineering a narrative now, working backward from a hypothetical future in which Antetokounmpo is already regarded as an all-timer. But I'm good with that because I think Giannis will be regarded as a pantheon-level figure. This will be his second championship and Finals MVP, and it won't be his last.
Milwaukee Bucks: 4
Boston Celtics: 2
Phoenix Suns: 6
Phoenix Suns: 4
Milwaukee Bucks: 2
Devin Booker: 2
Giannis Antetokounmpo: 2
Chris Paul: 2
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