It’s time for an early season heat check on the contenders and pretenders in the NBA.
Teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns are expected to be around the mark come the pointy end of the season but who is in the chasing pack.
Kane Pitman and Benyam Kidane got to together to discuss some of the other teams in the race for the 2021-22 NBA championship.
Kane Pitman (@KanePitman): The Jazz are contenders for mine. Similar to the Milwaukee Bucks, I think Utah will have learned some tough lessons over previous playoff failures that can help them moving forward. The Jazz should once again be a regular season force with their nightly defence again set to be near the top of the tree.
Donovan Mitchell was hobbled in the postseason and is still maturing into the star player most believe he can become., while Mike Conley Jr. battled injury throughout the campaign. You need a fair amount of luck to win an NBA championship and if the Jazz are healthy come playoffs I see no reason to believe they won’t be an incredibly tough team to face over a seven game series.
Benyam Kidane (@BenyamKidane): I’ve got the Jazz as a contender this season, but they’ve still got plenty to prove after early playoff exits in recent years.
In today’s NBA, continuity is hard to come by and the Bucks last season proved just how valuable that is with their core group lifting them to the NBA title. This Jazz team is a deep squad with multiple offensive weapons and as Donovan Mitchell continues to blossom into a superstar, they will be in the top tier of teams in the West.
Kane Pitman: I need more time before I can place the Bulls in the contending group in the East. As I write this, Chicago are currently 4-0. It’s the first time they have been 4-0 since the 90’s and I heard that was a pretty successful period for the franchise.
My biggest reason for pause is that they just haven’t played a team of note. The four wins includes two wins over the Detroit Pistons who are likely the worst team in the Eastern Conference, the Zion-less New Orleans Pelicans and the Toronto Raptors who appear to be a Play-In team at best.
The Bulls have enough talent that I think they will be able to handle the fringe playoff teams in either conference, it remains to be seen how they fare against top tier competition. The Bulls have the Knicks and Jazz up next. That sounds like a fun couple of matchups.
Benyam Kidane: It’s only been four games, but I am sold on the new-look Chicago Bulls as a contender in the East.
Their improvement defensively with Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball has been felt right away, but the fact that the offense no longer relies on Zach LaVine to carry it, makes them incredibly dangerous.
DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic as suplementary scorers means that any given night it can be someone different that gets hot and as the season goes on, their chemistry is only going to grow.
Kane Pitman: I have the Miami Heat in the group just behind the Bucks and Nets. My big concern is health given the age and miles on some of their stars. Another concern is going to be depth if one or two of their best players miss any length of time.
Tyler Herro looks a genuine Sixth Man of the Year contender and Marcus Morris is a solid bench rotation guy but after that there are question marks. Assuming full health, the Heat are a contender. Let’s see how they navigate the regular season to keep themselves in the best possible shape.
Benyam Kidane: In our season preview, I made the bold prediction that the Heat would finish with the No. 1 seed in the East and so far they’ve looked like one of the best teams in the league, with wins over the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks.
If Tyler Herro keeps playing like the league’s best bench player, averaging around the 20-point mark, the offensive potential of this team built around Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Bam Adebayo is going to be a problem for opponents, especially if the Heat can maintain their league-best defense.
Kane Pitman: I’m buying the Hawks. In fact, if I had to bet on one team out of Atlanta and Miami I’m feeling pretty confident about the Hawks.
The early chemistry struggles of last season appear well in the rear vision mirror for Atlanta, with John Collins in particular looking like he is ready to take the next step as a two-way force. De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bogdan Bogdanovic battled injuries last season, but with everyone in the lineup this is arguably the deepest team in the league.
And of course, we don’t need to have any concerns about Trae Young’s ability to deliver on the big stage.
Benyam Kidane: I’m as big a Trae Young fan as there is, but I don’t quite have the Hawks being a contender….so for now they’re a pretender.
Given the talent in at the top of the Eastern Conference, let alone thier own division, the Hawks are probably still in that second tier of teams behind the Bucks, Nets, and Heat.
In the Southeast Division, are they closer to the Charlotte Hornets than the Miami Heat? We’re only a week in, but it’s going to take a heck of a run to match their performance from last season.
Kane Pitman: I’m out on Dallas.
To be fair, I was out on Dallas pretty soon after Jason Kidd was announced as head coach but something just seems off with this roster. The stalling of the development of Kristaps Porzingis feels like a hammer blow for this team. A man that tall just isn’t meant to withstand lower body issues and Porzingis is a shadow of the player that looked set to tear up the league when he was in New York.
Doncic is a wizard, so they theoretically could win on any given night, but come playoff time, you need more than one guy and I’m just not sure they have it.
Benyam Kidane: Could the Mavericks actually be worse off than they were last season?
The new-look mid-rage focused offense seems out of synch with Luka Doncic’s strengths as a scorer and playmaker and it’s going to take time under new head coach Jason Kidd to find their identity this season.
Unless Kristaps Porzingis re-discovers his All-Star form on both ends of the floor, the Mavericks won’t be knocking on the top four of the Western Conference any time soon.