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Brandon Dill/Associated Press
NBA opening night is Tuesday, which means it’s officially time to lock in your 2021-22 season predictions.
Ahead of opening night, Bleacher Report rallied five writers to make 30 predictions—one for each team. We then added five more writers to the group and asked all 10 to vote on their final picks for league MVP and 2022 champion.
Read until the end to see who our staff thinks takes home the hardware, and hit the comments in the B/R app to to lock in your predictions for the season.
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John Bazemore/Associated Press
Prediction: Trae Young Will Join a Club with James Harden
James Harden is the only player in NBA history to average at least 25 points, 10 assists and a trio of threes for a season. In the last year of his rookie contract, Trae Young will make that club two players.
He’s exceeded the points threshold twice and the threes threshold once. His career average for assists is 8.9 per game. He’s been knocking on the 25-10-3 door for two years. In 2021-22, it’ll open, thanks to improved efficiency from three and developing finishers all around him.
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Winslow Townson/Associated Press
Prediction: Celtics Finish as a Middle-Echelon Team
There’s a lot to like about this Boston Celtics team, one that’s more about depth than dominant individual talent. To win, they come at you like Floyd Mayweather Jr. with a series of body blows and jabs, which is different from the top-tier teams such as defending NBA champion Milwaukee, or Brooklyn or Philadelphia, as each has a collection of basketball knockout artists.
But as the Celtics are constructed, they won’t be serious contenders for an NBA title; not this year, anyway.
That has more to do with their lack of top-shelf talent than it does moves opponents made. Jayson Tatum is a borderline top-10 talent. Fellow wing Jaylen Brown was an All-Star last season, and if healthy after May wrist surgery, he should be in the running again.
There are some nice players beyond those two, for sure. But Boston doesn’t have the kind of high-impact guys who can carry the team much farther than the first round of the playoffs.
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Adam Hunger/Associated Press
Prediction: Kyrie Irving Will Play for the Nets This Season…Probably
Kyrie Irving doesn’t want to get vaccinated. The Brooklyn Nets want him to. Since he hasn’t and has shown few signs that will change, the Nets made it abundantly clear in a team statement that they are prepared to move on and start the season without Irving.
But will he be around to finish the campaign? Yes. At some point this season, the 29-year-old will rejoin his Brooklyn Nets teammates. It will be awkward. It will be uncomfortable. It will result in his once again being the center of attention, even as he professes that he doesn’t want to be.
While he will likely return, don’t be surprised if he decides to call it quits from the NBA soon after. Basketball may be what he does best, but it’s clear that Irving sees himself being called to things that go above and beyond the game. So look for a career shift on Irving’s part in the coming years, with one last pitstop in Brooklyn to finish out this season with the Nets.
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Matt Kelley/Associated Press
Prediction: LaMelo Ball Will Make the All-Star Team
This may seem ahead of schedule. There are plenty of preseason All-Star candidates among Eastern Conference guards, but even as a rookie, LaMelo Ball was borderline top-10 in that group in box plus/minus and All-Star voting. And regarding the voting, fans and players were basing that on Ball’s pre-break performance, which only featured 15 starts.
For the season, Ball averaged 12.2 points and 6.1 assists per game with a 29.9 three-point percentage as a reserve. As a starter, he put up 18.1 points and 6.2 assists in 31.2 minutes per contest, while shooting 37.9 percent from three.
In year two, he’ll be a starter from the get-go and figures to play more than 31.2 minutes per night. If Gordon Hayward can stay healthy, the Charlotte Hornets will be better, too, which should also help Ball’s All-Star prospects. Given that he already commands the spotlight and features highlight-worthy passing, if he’s averaging around 20 points for a good team by the All-Star break, he’ll get in.
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Prediction: Lock in the Playoffs…Even If Real Contention Is a Year Away
After finishing 31-41, the Chicago Bulls cemented themselves as a playoff team with the offseason additions of DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. Although the floor is higher, Chicago’s ceiling still doesn’t project as a title contender.
DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic are all terrific offensively, yet they aren’t good defenders, meaning Chicago will have to win a lot of shootouts.
Patrick Williams and Coby White won’t make a lot of headlines but will be key to pushing the Bulls deep into the Eastern Conference playoffs with their defensive versatility and scoring punch off the bench. Their development this season will play a role in how close this team gets to being a true contender next year.
Chicago will be one of the most entertaining teams to watch this season, but defense could be a real issue.
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Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Prediction: Young Talent Won’t Contend for Postseason
The Cleveland Cavaliers should theoretically compete for a playoff spot in year four of their rebuild, but this is still one of the NBA’s youngest teams—and one whose best player could be a rookie (Evan Mobley). Collin Sexton and Darius Garland could each average over 20 points per game, even if neither has shown the ability to stop anyone.
Ricky Rubio was a smart addition to the young backcourt, but there are few other veterans to be found. Kevin Love is only with the team because no one will take his contract, and his spot in the rotation isn’t even guaranteed with Lauri Markkanen joining Cleveland on a generous four-year, $67.5 million deal.
There’s a lot of young talent to like, but the Cavs still may not have enough experience, defensive chops or three-point shooting to contend for the postseason.
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Matt Kelley/Associated Press
Prediction: Luka Doncic Will Post an Above-Average Three-Point Percentage
You have to be pretty nitpicky to criticize the first three seasons from Luka Doncic. Beyond his eye-popping basic averages, Luka trails only LeBron James for total wins over replacement player through an age-21 season. Still, there’s room for improvement, particularly as a shooter.
Luka has been fairly efficient for a guard, thanks to center-like numbers around the rim, but his jumper has been inconsistent (he’s yet to post an above-average three-point percentage or free-throw percentage in his career).
A lot of that has to do with the degree of difficulty on his shots, and it sounds like new head coach Jason Kidd might want to boost Luka’s off-ball opportunities. That and continued maturity will get Doncic up to the high 30s from three this season.
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Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Prediction: Nuggets Will Be One of League’s Biggest Wild Cards
There’s plenty to be intrigued by regarding the Denver Nuggets: How will Nikola Jokic follow up his MVP campaign? Will Michael Porter Jr. make the superstar leap after signing a massive extension? Will Aaron Gordon’s fit grow even stronger after a full training camp?
But their season, and how far they’ll go, hinges on when Jamal Murray returns from the torn ACL he suffered in April, and how good he looks when he plays.
The Nuggets kept winning in the regular season without Murray, but the lack of shot creation caught up to them in the playoffs. It’s hard to predict their record without knowing when he’ll return, but if he’s back in March or April in time for a playoff run, they’ll get plenty of “This is the team no one wants to see in the first round” buzz.
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Chase Stevens/Associated Press
Prediction: Pistons Will Be Low-key Fun to Watch
The Detroit Pistons’ young talent won’t translate to many wins this season, and that’s OK. Detroit fans have three legitimate prospects to watch in Cade Cunningham, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey, and Killian Hayes has at least shown flashes of being a good defender and playmaker, which will be valuable even if his offense never develops.
Of course, Cunningham’s rookie season will be the most telling of this franchise’s future, as a LaMelo Ball or Anthony Edwards-like freshman campaign would pump life into a team that hasn’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs since 2008.
Detroit will likely finish with one of the NBA’s worst records given the amount of youth, but Jerami Grant, Kelly Olynyk and others should help make this a feisty bunch.
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Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
Prediction: Warriors Get Epic Klay Thompson Return
It’s been over two years since Klay Thompson’s knee injury in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals (followed by an Achilles tear in 2020), and the Warriors will be sure to give the marksman guard some time to work his way back into the season.
Thompson will return, though, probably in January, and he’ll still have his beautiful quick-release jump shot. He’ll help the Warriors make the playoffs without having to go through the play-in games. He’ll struggle more on the defensive side, where players need to have greater mobility. But Thompson will remind the league of how deadly his backcourt pairing is with Stephen Curry.
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Michael Wyke/Associated Press
Prediction: Jalen Green Will Lead the Rockets in Scoring
John Wall and the Houston Rockets have agreed he won’t play any regular-season games for the team while they focus on a trade. He led the way in usage percentage last season, and the next two names on that list, Victor Oladipo and James Harden, are gone. That leaves Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. as rookie Jalen Green’s biggest competition for No. 1-option status.
Green, who led the G League Ignite with 17.9 points last season, figures to have his hands on the ball more often than Wood. That’s just the nature of the guard-big dynamic on most rosters. And KPJ profiles as more of a distributor than Green does. Before long, the rookie will settle into the leading-scorer’s role.
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Darron Cummings/Associated Press
Prediction: Sabonis Will Star, But Injuries Hold Back Pacers Another Year
With Rick Carlisle back at head coach, the Indiana Pacers will be better than the 34-38 disappointment from a season ago, but injury concerns could keep them out of the playoffs for a second straight year.
Can T.J. Warren (still out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his left foot) and Caris LeVert (stress fracture in his back) return at a reasonable time and play at a high level? Will Myles Turner (limited to 47 games last season) stay healthy enough to challenge for Defensive Player of the Year? That’s too many what-ifs.
Domantas Sabonis is one the best (and still most underrated) big men in the league, and if he can improve his three-point shooting (career .321) and rim protection, he could make his first All-NBA team.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
Prediction: Kawhi Leonard Will Play It Safe
Will Kawhi Leonard return to the Los Angeles Clippers this season after suffering a partially torn ACL in June’s playoffs? The All-Star forward is out indefinitely, and while some fans are holding out hope that he’ll return before the postseason, they’re likely to be disappointed.
Leonard’s history with the San Antonio Spurs, when he sat an extended period with a quadriceps injury, and with the Toronto Raptors (sitting out back-to-back games), suggests he’ll make sure he’s fully healed before even considering a return. Ink him in for the start of the 2022-23 season, but this version of the Clippers will need to forge ahead without him. The team is still play-in-worthy and may even nab one of the top-eight seeds.
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Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press
Prediction: Russell Westbrook Experiment Will Pay Off…Eventually
Offseason acquisition Russell Westbrook will prove extremely valuable to the Los Angeles Lakers, but the transition will not be seamless. He has spent much of his career as his team’s primary ball-handler and decision-maker, for better or for worse.
He’s averaged triple-doubles and won the league’s Most Valuable Player. Still, his teams have only gone so far in the playoffs (he does have an NBA Finals appearance from the Kevin Durant/James Harden days with the Oklahoma City Thunder).
But Westbrook wasn’t the salve for the Rockets when he reunited with Harden, Houston’s former ball-dominant star. Now, the Lakers are unquestionably LeBron James’ squad. Westbrook will need a couple of months to find where he can best help the team. It’ll work. The Lakers will be a massive force in the West this season, and Westbrook will be an enormous part of that success. But it’s not going to be comfortable on day one.
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Brandon Dill/Associated Press
Prediction: Ja Morant Makes the Superstar Leap
After an electrifying rookie campaign in which he averaged 17.8 points and 7.3 assists per game, Ja Morant sort of plateaued in his second regular season. Both of those averages crept up, but his effective field-goal percentage (.487) dipped way below the league average of .538.
He obliterated concerns in the Memphis Grizzlies’ first-round series with the Utah Jazz, though. Against the West’s top seed, Morant put up 30.2 points and 8.2 assists in five games. He won’t be that prolific for an entire campaign, but expect him to be closer to that version of himself than what he’s shown in the regular season so far.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
Prediction: Tyler Herro Will Win Sixth Man of the Year
This, of course, assumes Tyler Herro will come off the Miami Heat bench for the bulk of the 2021-22 campaign, but he looks like a strong candidate for Sixth Man of the Year.
Over his last 15 games of the 2020-21 season, Herro shot 47.3 percent from three. And that strong play has carried over into this preseason, where his 20.8 points per game trails only the averages of Jordan Poole and Ja Morant (among players who’ve logged at least 50 minutes).
As big-name players Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry log more time in the regular season, that number will obviously come down a bit, but an average in the high teens feels like a safe bet. And if he does that on decent efficiency for a team that returns to title contention, he’ll be in the hunt for the award.
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Morry Gash/Associated Press
Prediction: Bucks Prove Deeper Despite P.J. Tucker Loss
The defending-champion Milwaukee Bucks, despite losing P.J. Tucker to the Heat in free agency, seem deeper and better than ever with the additions of Grayson Allen, George Hill, Rodney Hood, Semi Ojeleye and the eventual return of starting shooting guard Donte DiVincenzo from ankle surgery. Giannis Antetokounmpo, despite the Hall of Fame resume he’s generated, is still just 26 and could just be entering his prime.
Of course, we still don’t know if this Bucks squad can topple a healthy Brooklyn Nets, one that’s become deeper as well. We should see a real battle between the two franchises for the next few years, not only to see who comes out of the East, but also who between Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant is the best player in the NBA.
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Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
Prediction: Anthony Edwards Avoids the Sophomore Slump
The Minnesota Timberwolves have long been thought to be one of the most aggressive Ben Simmons suitors, although it’s unclear whether they have anything the 76ers would really want for the star guard.
Regardless of whether they can pull off a big trade, expect to see continued growth from Anthony Edwards. Last year’s No. 1 overall pick became a different player when Chris Finch took over as head coach midseason (going from 14.3 ppg to 23.2, among other improvements), and a full training camp with the current staff in place will only help his development.
Wherever Minnesota finishes in the standings, it’s got a future star on its hands.
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Matthew Hinton/Associated Press
Prediction: Zion Williamson Will Lead the League in Scoring
Worries about Zion Williamson’s health are fair. With two NBA seasons under his belt, the 21-year-old has already had surgery for a torn meniscus and a Jones fracture in his foot. Lower-frame injuries for a player with his build (6’7″, 284 lbs) raise red flags, but he’s already proved unstoppable when healthy.
For his career, he trails only Michael Jordan and Joel Embiid in points per 75 possessions. And last season alone, he finished eighth in points per game. Some of the players who finished ahead of him have returning or incoming teammates who will impact their usage. And while you could say the same of Zion with Jonas Valanciunas, his youth suggests rising numbers could be the norm for a while.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Prediction: Kemba Walker Experiment Will Require a Lot of Maintenance
Having grown up in the Bronx, Kemba Walker is receiving a lot of love from New York Knicks fans, which is well-deserved and not at all surprising. They should enjoy it now, though. Because Walker will once again be in and out of the lineup, much like he was last season in Boston. More than anything, it’ll be an attempt to keep him as healthy as possible for the postseason.
It’ll be easier to stomach for Knicks fans, because they likely see it coming. But in Boston, Walker never quite lived up to what the team expected from the four-time All-Star who, prior to signing with the Celtics, had been one of the NBA’s true Ironmen for years. In the four previous seasons before arriving in Boston, Walker had missed just six games. In his first year in Boston, Walker missed 16 contests. Last season, knee-related issues led to his being sidelined for 29 games.
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Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
Prediction: OKC’s Season Will Be Your Classic ‘Year Away from a Year Away’
Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti has spent the past two years stockpiling picks and young players to begin his rebuild. Going into this season, the Thunder are still multiple years away from being a true playoff competitor. This year, success will look like figuring out which of their prospects are long-term keepers.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is clearly a part of the Thunder’s long-term plan after he inked a five-year, $172.6 million extension over the summer. Luguentz Dort is well on his way. Rookie Josh Giddey has been getting preseason buzz, and Aleksej Pokusevski remains a Twitter darling. The Thunder’s record is irrelevant, but we’ll find out throughout this year what they have.
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Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
Prediction: Markelle Fultz Will Lead the Magic in Assists
This is a two-fold prediction. For Markelle Fultz to lead the Orlando Magic in assists, he has to actually play. After he tore his ACL in January, “The Magic front office has designated reintroducing [Jonathan] Isaac and Fultz to playing in games and getting them through the upcoming season without any new injuries as two of the franchise’s biggest priorities,” according to The Athletic’s Josh Robbins. That suggests a cautious timeline for Fultz, but it could also mean he’ll be at full strength when he does return.
And after years of mystery regarding his health and jump shot, Fultz was starting to show flashes of a high-end playmaker with the Magic. He may never be the dominant No. 1 scorer many thought he’d be coming out of college in 2017, but Fultz’s shiftiness gets him into the paint in a way many guards and wings can’t. And his 6’3″ size helps him survey the entire floor once he’s in there.
Orlando doesn’t have the most reliable receivers surrounding him, but once Fultz gets back on the court, he’ll set up plenty of open looks.
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Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Prediction: This Isn’t the Year…No Matter How the Ben Simmons Saga Plays Out
There’s no getting around it: The window of opportunity for the Philadelphia 76ers to win an NBA title with this group is closed. The damage Ben Simmons has done with his trade demand is irrevocable.
The fact that Simmons reported to the team will increase his trade value. But will it be enough for Philly to get comparable talent in return? Unlikely.
Joel Embiid is still the go-to guy, and Tobias Harris has proved to be a reliable No. 2 scoring option. But finding an adequate replacement for Simmons’ playmaking and elite defense won’t be easy. That’s why Philadelphia, while still a very good team without Simmons, isn’t good enough to be the last team standing in the NBA, let alone the Eastern Conference.
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Matt York/Associated Press
Prediction: Devin Booker Will Challenge for Scoring Title
Much of the credit for the Phoenix Suns’ success last season was attributed to Chris Paul, who certainly did a masterful job of pushing a consistent lottery team deep into the playoffs. Before Paul’s arrival, Devin Booker was considered by many to be an empty-calorie scorer who didn’t impact winning.
Now the team is coming off an NBA Finals appearance, and Booker (who ranked just outside the top 15 in the most recent Bleacher Report Top 50 ranking) has changed the narrative. Look for Booker to compete for the scoring title this season, with an improved accuracy from three-point range, after he shot 34 percent from distance last year.
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Matt York/Associated Press
Prediction: Trail Blazers Aren’t Elite Enough to Squash Lillard Speculation
No matter how much Damian Lillard and the organization try to shut it down, speculation about his happiness with the Portland Trail Blazers has never fully gone away. That won’t change this year—even if none of it comes directly from him.
However the Blazers feel about new head coach Chauncey Billups’ transformative potential, this is still a flawed roster, likely with a first-round ceiling—barring big changes that don’t appear to be on the horizon. Lillard himself has been clear about his desire to stay in Portland. But if they lose in the first round again, get ready for another offseason similar to this one, filled with rumors and chatter.
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Alex Gallardo/Associated Press
Prediction: Progress Looks Like the Play-In
The Sacramento Kings haven’t made the playoffs since the 2005-06 season. The roster has a lot of young talent in De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, Davion Mitchell and Marvin Bagley III (who needs to break through this season). Will they be enough to get back to the postseason?
Yes and no. The Kings will make the play-in, but they don’t quite have enough to get into the final eight teams in the Western Conference to make a proper playoff run. Call it progress, albeit not quite as much as what fans would hope.
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Matt Slocum/Associated Press
Prediction: Raptors Are Play-In Bound
Kawhi Leonard may have been the missing piece the Toronto Raptors needed to claim the franchise’s only NBA title. But when you think of Mr. Raptor, Kyle Lowry immediately comes to mind. Now that he’s with the Miami Heat, there’s a huge void both on and off the court in Toronto.
And while Fred VanVleet certainly has the talent to help soothe that loss, Lowry’s departure likely means the Raptors will be among the back-of-the-pack teams in the East in contention for a spot in the play-in game.
The one player who could significantly impact the Raptors’ rate of return to basketball relevancy is OG Anunoby. The 24-year-old averaged a career-high 15.9 points last season while shooting 39.8 percent from three and is poised to be even more impactful during his fifth campaign.
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Duane Burleson/Associated Press
Prediction: Jazz Earn West’s Top Seed
Given the uncertainty around most of the other teams in the Western Conference playoff race, the Utah Jazz are in a good spot to grab the No. 1 seed again. Continuity matters, and Utah is bringing back much of the same roster that had so much success a year ago.
The question, as ever, will be whether that regular-season dominance will translate into a Western Conference Finals or even a Finals appearance. They won’t be a trendy pick given the lack of big-name cachet and deep postseason runs. But they’re right where they need to be with two-time All-Star Donovan Mitchell and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert as anchors.
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Nick Wass/Associated Press
Prediction: Rui Hachimura Will Emerge as Bradley Beal’s No. 2
With Russell Westbrook gone and several newcomers on the roster, the Washington Wizards have plenty of options to assume the No. 2 role alongside Bradley Beal. There’s a chance it becomes sort of a committee assignment, but forward Rui Hachimura will prevent that.
His 13.8 points in 2020-21 trailed only Beal and Westbrook among Wizards who played more than 10 games, and a strong showing at the Tokyo Olympics suggests he’s ready for a step forward. Japan only played three games in the tournament, but Hachimura led his team with 22.3 points per night while shooting 38.1 percent from three.
If he can keep up that kind of outside shooting and increase his volume by a shot or two per game, he’ll threaten an average around 20.
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Adam Hunger/Associated Press
The NBA may someday be Luka’s league, but for now, our staff largely sees the MVP coming down to a couple of former Most Valuable Players in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant.
Luka Doncic did land the third spot in our voting, with Stephen Curry also receiving a vote. But as the Bucks and Nets fight for the top spot in the East this season, their two stars may also have the most compelling MVP cases.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: 4
Kevin Durant: 3
Luka Doncic: 2
Stephen Curry: 1
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
For as many jokes as we saw over the summer about the Lakers’ age, they received as many votes from our staff as the ultra-talented Nets and the defending Western Conference champion Suns.
None of those teams, however, landed as many votes as Giannis and the Bucks earned.
If our staff is right between these last two predictions, the Bucks will finish 2021-22 with both the MVP and the Larry O’Brien Trophy—a combo they haven’t had since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led Milwaukee to a title in 1971.