Ball Eyes North’s Conference Predictions, MVP Guess, & Number 1 Pick Contenders

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Welcome to my obligatory predictions for the upcoming 21–22 NBA season! Are you even an NBA fan if you do not publish your projections for the season for all the world to see and mock when you inevitably get it wrong?This year tips off with the Nets vs. Bucks on Tuesday night followed by the Warriors vs. Lakers, so let’s get to the predictions!

Western Conference Standings

  1. Phoenix Suns
  2. Los Angeles Lakers
  3. Utah Jazz
  4. Denver Nuggets
  5. Portland Trailblazers
  6. Dallas Mavericks
  7. Golden State Warriors
  8. Los Angeles Clippers
  9. Minnesota Timberwolves
  10. Memphis Grizzlies
  11. Sacramento Kings
  12. New Orleans Pelicans
  13. San Antonio Spurs
  14. Oklahoma City Thunder
  15. Houston Rockets

Phoenix is my #1 seed in the West because of the continuity and chemistry they will ride heading into this year. The Suns were 8–8 after 16 games last year, then finished 43–13 to end the year at 51–21. They ride their finals-runner-up momentum to the top seed, and the rest of the Western conference heavyweights fall in line behind them.

There are a couple of potential surprises here. The Clippers fall from the 4th seed last season to the 8th seed and a play-in berth. Such is life when you lose Kawhi Leonard for most of the year. They will still be a good team, just not good enough to avoid the play-in. I have the Pelicans finishing in a worse spot than last season. I just think they are in a weird spot with Zion’s health questionable already. They have the potential to have some major rough patches.

Our beloved Wolves grab the 9th seed here. Ever the optimist, I just feel as though a healthy Wolves squad is good enough to make the play-in. Of course, it is always a tough bet to assume our Wolves will stay healthy, but if they do I see a really solid season ahead!

Eastern Conference Standings

  1. Milwaukee Bucks
  2. Brooklyn Nets
  3. Atlanta Hawks
  4. Philadelphia 76ers
  5. Boston Celtics
  6. Miami Heat
  7. New York Knicks
  8. Chicago Bulls
  9. Toronto Raptors
  10. Washington Wizards
  11. Indiana Pacers
  12. Charlotte Hornets
  13. Cleveland Cavaliers
  14. Orlando Magic
  15. Detroit Pistons

Milwaukee is riding high after the championship and a drama free offseason where they basically return their key players and still have Giannis. Easily the #1 seed for the regular season. Despite all of the Kyrie news, Brooklyn still takes the 2 seed on account of the fact that they employ Kevin Durant and James Harden and insulate them with shooters and veterans. That’s a great team with or without Kyrie.

I still think the Sixers will be good regardless of how the Ben Simmons situation shakes out, and Atlanta has great depth and proved that they can be a great team when they have their guys healthy.

I am not so bullish on the Knicks and Bulls, and am certainly lower than the consensus on Charlotte. I think the Hornets are going to combat teams with good size, and the Eastern conference got better on paper this offseason so they may get pushed down a rung.

MVP Rankings

The award for Most Valuable Player is often very narrative-based. Sure, the player has to have the statistics and the team success to be considered, but voters often take into account the surrounding environment. I think there is a very good chance that we do not see much of Kyrie Irving this year, and now Durant may be primed to capture another MVP more than 2 years after his achilles injury. If he is able to play nearly a full season putting up similar numbers to last season (27/7/5.5 on 53% shooting & 45% from 3) while leading the Nets to a top 2 seed in the East, look for him to be at the top of many voters’ ballots.

The reigning Finals MVP is back in the MVP conversation as the “voter fatigue” wears off and the sheen of a championship trophy is still as bright as ever. Giannis will casually put up the same numbers he has been over the past few years (around 28/12/6) while being one of the best defensive players in the league and leading the Bucks to the East’s 1st seed. His case will be as strong as ever for an MVP, but as usual in the NBA narratives will dominate and Kevin Durant will take this one. No matter, The Greek Freak will capture another one of these in due time.

I think Luka will be a walking 27 points, 7 rebounds, and at least 7 assists for most of his career, and his efficiency should only improve. If I had to bet on it, I would say he will win an MVP at some point in his career! Just not this year. His Mavericks overall ranking as the West’s 6th seed will keep him from being at the top of ballots this year. Someday our Slovenian Prince will win one.

First off, how is it possible that Nikola Jokić has not missed a game in the past 2 seasons? Incredible. The reigning MVP will surely be in the conversation again this season by being available every game and be the epicenter of one of the league’ best offenses. Without Jamal Murray for most/all of this season his case may be stronger than ever if he puts up the same numbers as last season. We will see if the voters agree!

“Ice Trae” makes his maiden voyage into the MVP’s top 5 rankings. As the best player and offensive engine on a team that I project to be the 3rd seed in the East he should have a great case. 2 years ago on a bad Hawks team Young put up nearly 30 points and 9 assists per game. Last season his numbers dipped a bit (25pts/9asts) but his team finished the season really well and made a real run in the playoffs. If he is anywhere between 25–29 points and gets 9assists/game again on a really good Hawks team he will certainly be in this conversation.

Contenders for the #1 Pick?

Want to feel old? The Rockets have 4 players on their roster that were born in 2002. Incredible. I think Houston has a really intriguing young team and is rebuilding the right way. They still have their own picks for another year or two so they should get as young as possible and be as bad as possible right now. By the end of the season I could see them having dealt veterans Eric Gordon, Daniel Theis, and possibly even Christian Wood. Let Kevin Porter Jr, Jalen Green, Josh Christopher and other young guys have all the minutes! This is the fun part of a rebuild, when you get to watch all of the young guys prosper or fail. Rockets fans should look forward to that part of this season. Wins? Not so much!

I struggle with projecting the Pistons. On one hand they have a solid coach, a few good veteran players, and a couple of rookies from last year that look like they will contribute right away. On the other hand, I do not see any teams in the Eastern conference that they will be better than. I love Cade Cunningham and maybe he will be good enough right away to keep them competitive, but ultimately they will be best served to play the young guys as much as possible and I think the organization will recognize that.

If you told me the Thunder really planned on trying this season I would certainly not put them in this conversation. That would mean SGA and Derrick Favors play every possible game and Poku never touches the floor. Alas, I doubt that is the plan. Presti is taking the ultra-long view. SGA is really dang good and will keep them from being the absolute worst team, but it does not look like they are going to play Favors so it seems like the rest of the minutes are going to go to their incredibly young roster of players. Probably a smart move for the future! But that is not going to win games this season.

The last of the 4 most obvious “tanking” teams. The Magic hit the reset button last season when they dealt away Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vučević, and Evan Fournier. Since then it seems that they have pivoted nicely into a young, athletic, and potential-laden roster! Orlando has amassed a trio of very young guards in Cole Anthony, RJ Hampton, and Minnesota’s own Jalen Suggs. Those 3 mix with the hopefully-healthy Markelle Fultz form an intriguing back court of the future. Chuma Okeke is a really interesting forward, and we all know the defensive prowess that Jonathan Isaac can provide when healthy. If either Wendell Carter Jr. or Mo Bamba can pop a bit this year, they have a really fun future ahead. They will take this year to really sort it out, and that will likely lead to plenty of losses, but it should be a fun ride!

So many teams are one injury away from ending up near the top of the lottery. Unfortunately I think the Pelicans may end up in that type of situation. There is already uncertainty about Zion Williamson’s availability for the beginning of the season after the revelation that he had foot surgery earlier in the offseason. Yet another weird chapter in the Zion/Pelicans partnership. Maybe he takes a long time to start playing and the team flounders out of the gates. Does the team get even more cautious with him if hope for a good season is lost quickly? New Orleans has lots of young guys that could use some extra playing time for their development… It could turn into that type of season with a 1st year head coach fairly quickly. This is all *unlikely* to happen but it is certainly realistic, right? I will quell my concerns if Zion comes back soon and looks ready to play right away, but until then I remain skeptical.

-Jerry W.

Analyzing the Minnesota Timberwolves and greater NBA from a fan’s perspective. Twitter: @balleyesnorth Email: balleyesnorth@gmail.com Website: balleyesnorth.com