The Milwaukee Bucks were only just crowned 2021 NBA champions. Surely now’s not the time to forecast who wins it all next year.
Except it is.
Look, it’s not really that early when looking ahead to next season. Most teams are already in full-on offseason mode, and the best sports betting sites wouldn’t be offering 2022 title lines if it wasn’t a worthwhile discussion.
So, here we are.
Granted, there is some danger in completing this exercise now. Teams have yet to go through free agency and the draft, and there will be a flurry of trades before the 2021-22 regular season tips off.
Still, we know enough about the landscape to project what’s to come and cobble together a general pecking order. What follows is our ranking of the five most likely champions next year. Let’s get to it.
5. Philadelphia 76ers
Putting the Sixers here is sort of a risk. They flamed out of the second round of the playoffs in unspectacular fashion, and no one knows whether they’ll move Ben Simmons over the offseason.
Color us mostly unconcerned. The Sixers were regular season juggernauts this year and can be the same next year even if they don’t make a single change to roster. We’re also banking on team president Daryl Morey to make some feisty upgrades.
Of course, the shaky health of Joel Embiid always looms. But he’s one of the 10 best players alive when on the court. The Sixers are going to be in the title mix next year.
“Philadelphia 76ers” by Nick Wass/AP is licensed under CC BY 3.0
4. Phoenix Suns
Believe it or not, even though the Suns just made the NBA Finals, this isn’t going to be a popular pick.
Many view their success as transient. They got lucky that they stayed so healthy while other teams kept losing irreplaceable players. Chris Paul is also 36 years old and set to enter free agency. He could leave. Or decline. Either is a nightmare scenario for a team that is so clearly one high-level shot-maker short of title-worthy.
That’s also part of the Suns’ charm: They’re only one player away—and perhaps less. They will probably re-sign CP3, and they can still count on improvement from their bevy of youngsters, including Devin Booker, Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson and Deandre Ayton.
Factor in key injuries throughout the Western Conference headed into next year—namely Kawhi Leonard in Los Angeles and Jamal Murray in Denver—and the Suns are well positioned for sustainable success.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Part of us wants to put the reigning champs higher. They just won it all for crying out loud, and they have all three of their stars—Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton—under contract for the foreseeable future.
At the same time, the Bucks are top-heavy, and they don’t have the resources to expand their rotation. They’ll enter the offseason flirting with the luxury tax and could actually lose at least one key rotation piece in Bobby Portis or PJ Tucker.
On the bright side, Milwaukee is subject to move up a spot (or even two) if it finagles a bigger-than-expected addition.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers are fortunate that both the Los Angeles Clippers (Kawhi) and Denver Nuggets (Murray) are dealing with major long-term injuries. They might not crack the top five otherwise.
Alas, there is a power vacuum in the Western Conference—many really good teams, but no clear cut favorite. While we’re concerned that LeBron James is entering his age-37 season and Anthony Davis is exceedingly injury-prone, we’re also convinced the Lakers will figure out a way to land a B-plus-or-better player by way of sign-and-trade in free agency.
“LA Lakers” by Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today is licensed under CC BY 3.0
1. Brooklyn Nets
Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden make for a Big Three unlike any we’ve ever seen. At full strength, they may all be top-10 players. And in the time they spent together this season, the Nets were damn near unbeatable.
Health is obviously a roadblock for this team. Kyrie Irving is always dealing with something, Harden was overcome by hamstring injuries during the 2021 postseason, and KD has a ruptured Achilles in his rear view.
Whatever. The Nets have star power to spare, so they can withstand some bumps in the road. Hell, they almost made it out of the East this year despite only having KD at full strength by playoffs’ end.
Failing a season-ending injury to one of their Big Three, they are the most logical 2022 title favorite.