2021-22 NBA Preview: Reviewing the Title Contenders

Well, that was a quick off-season.  With so much going on, it feels like we didn’t have to miss the NBA for very long.  The season officially starts on October 18 and it feels like early 2020-21 again.  The Nets and Lakers are the early bettor favorites, with Sportsbettingdime.com, giving Brooklyn the edge at +200 followed by the Lakers (+400) and the Bucks (+900).  But do these odds accurately reflect the current statuses of the potential contenders?  I’m skeptical of one of those teams.  Let’s dig in with a quick few of the potential title contenders, FAQ-style:

Are the Nets as good as they look on paper?

Yeah.  But for a few untimely injuries, the Nets were on their way to a title last year.  Of course, injuries are part of the game but both the James Harden hamstring strain and Kyrie Irving ankle sprain against Milwaukee seemed more in realm of bad luck than reflection of chronic injury problems.  This is not to say that injuries could not rear their head again but, the probabilities favor avoiding those types of injuries again.

Will Kyrie tear the Nets apart?

Possibly. The Nets’ biggest issue is Kyrie’s refusal to vaccinate, which would guarantee that he would miss all games played in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco (and probably in other cities eventually as well).  While this issue is getting a lot of play now, the issue isn’t really that big a problem quite yet.  If Brooklyn is willing to cut Kyrie’s salary by 55-60%, they can maintain this status quo for now.  A Kevin Durant-James Harden duo should be enough to win close to 60 games anyway even without Kyrie most of the time.

Where things get weird will be the playoffs.  Assuming Kyrie never gets vaccinated, he won’t be able to play all home games and there are a few series (and possibly more coming later) where he will not be permitted into any of the games.  That’s a problem.  The Nets could win a title without Kyrie but, at some point, the current flux will have to be resolved with a needle or with a decision that he is off the roster.

How strong are Brooklyn’s odds?

At +200 the Nets are fairly strong relative to recent favorites.  By way of comparison, here are the pre-season odds each year since 1984-85 and how the favorites did:

SeasonFavoriteOddsSecondOdds2Title WinnerOdds3

The last two seasons, the second favorite ended up winning the title.  With the exception of Warrior dynasty, the last time a team was as favored as this year’s Nets team was the 2013-14 Heat (LeBron’s final run there) and the 2010-11 Lakers (Kobe’s titled defense).  Neither team won the title (the Heat were waxed by the Spurs in the Finals and the Lakers didn’t make it even nearly that far in 2011).  In fact, the last time a non-Warrior title team had better odds than this year’s Nets and won the title was the 2001-02 Lakers (the Shaq/Kobe three-peat).  So, there is ample past data to support that the field could win out over the Nets.

What about the Lakers?

The Lakers are currently second in the odds market and the last two second place odds teams both won the title.  But I’m not optimistic about the Lakers.  As we explained back in August, Russell Westbrook is not an ideal fit with LeBron and Anthony Davis.  Also, the Lakers are generally pretty old and lack shooting around LeBron and Anthony Davis.  But the real question is LBJ. 

Can he still carry a team at age-37? 

There are really two components to this question.  First, can LBJ stay healthy at this age?  James has had big injuries in 2018-19 and 2020-21 but both were more soft tissue related (hamstring strain and ankle sprain) and the Lakers shut down LBJ down for long periods for strategic reasons (they tanked in 2019 for a lottery pick and in 2021 they wanted to avoid the Clippers in the playoff seeding).  While injury risk rises with age, James has fortunately avoided the major injuries and hopefully he should continue to do so.

The second component of this question is whether James can stave off age-related decline.  It’s hard to take some minor declines in LBJ’s stats too seriously because, since his return to Cleveland, he has shown a conscious ability to coast and then turn on the supernova production for the playoffs.  There will come a time when he won’t be able to do that anymore and there is some anecdotal evidence of decline: (a) his ability to get to the rim has declined to near career-low levels, (b) he had a his worst PER since his rookie year, and (c) he had a very weak playoffs.  Still, these declines are not to particularly low levels. 

In fact, his decline phase stats are damn impressive.  LBJ played only 1,504 minutes last season and his advanced stats were as follows:

-24.2 Per, .179 WS48, 7.5 BPM, 3.6 VORP (would have been 5.5 had he played his 2019-20 minutes)

There really is no comparison for James at age-37. His closest comp is Michael Jordan, who retired at age-36.  The best advanced stats for a player age-37 or older:

-PER: Karl Malone 2000-01, 24.7

-WS48: John Stockton 1999-00, .222

-BPM: John Stockton and Karl Malone 2000-01, 6.7

-VORP: Karl Malone 2000-01, 6.3

All this tells us is that Stockton and Malone were physical freaks.  Despite their production, their late Utah teams were not serious title contenders.  The only players to be near-top players at age-37 for a bona fide title contender:

-Jason Kidd 2010-11 (age 37): 14.4 PER, .116 WS48, 2.8 BPM, 3.3 VORP (won title)

-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1984-85 (age 37): 22.9 PER, .204 WS48, 5.1 BPM, 4.8 VORP (won title)

-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 1985-86 (age 38): 22.7 PER, .197 WS48, 5.4 BPM, 4.9 VORP (lost in WCF)

-Tim Duncan 2013-14 (age 37): 21.3 PER, .164 WS48, 3.3 BPM, 2.9 VORP (won title)

-Tim Duncan 2014-15 (age 38): 22.6 PER, .207 WS48, 5.1 BPM, 4.0 VORP (lost in first round)

Each of these three players was not the best player on his team at the point that LBJ is in now.  Dallas had Dirk Nowitzki and an egalitarian supporting cast (of which Kidd was arguably second best).  Kareem was great but still supported by Magic Johnson.  TD was great (and still even pretty good at age-39) but Kawhi Leonard was the clear best player on the team. 

It’s not clear that LeBron has ever been the second best player on any team.  He could transition to that role now with Anthony Davis but it is unfamiliar territory for LBJ.  James could be a freak like Tom Brady who rewrites the aging rules but, more likely, LBJ will have to make some concessions to age and soon and that makes the Lakers a shakier proposition than usual.

So, where do you go if you don’t believe in the Lakers and are skeptical of the Nets?

In the East, Milwaukee brings back the heart of a title team and has a strong and legitimate shot at repeating yet are pegged at +900.  The actual Bucks’ chances of winning are not significantly lower than the Nets, making the Bucks a nice value.  No other East team seems to be realistically in the same picture. Philadelphia needs to resolve the Ben Simmons situation before it can be seriously considered at this time.  Miami has some talent but has age and roster-balance issues.

Out West, the Clippers have no Kawhi so they are eliminated from contention.  That leaves the Jazz, Nuggets, and Suns as potentially viable contenders right now.  Utah does not seem well-suited for postseason play.  Denver is missing Jamal Murray.  The Suns will rely heavily on Chris Paul’s health (he has actually been quite healthy the last few years) but their run to the Finals appear to have been a result of good health and a favorable bracket. 

The strangest odds go to the Warriors, who have the fourth best odds at +1100 (over Utah, Phoenix, and Denver).   GS had a bad offense last season (20th) and all non-Steph Curry options were ineffective (the only other regular player with a positive OBPM was Jordan Poole).  The odds makers (or bettors) apparently believe the return of Klay Thompson will fix that.  Suffice it to say, we are not sold on the idea that an older Klay who hasn’t played since 2019 can come back to the level of play he was at a few years ago. 

In end, what do you say?

Everything else being equal, the Nets are still my pick for the NBA title. Their grip on the title is more tenuous than the odds suggest, making the Bucks a nice value.