Why the Warriors, Knicks, Bulls and Clippers are among the toughest teams to forecast for 2021-22 NBA season

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About a month out from the start of training camp for the 2021-22 NBA season, which will finally be back on a traditional timeline, Caesars Sportsbook released its over/under win total lines for all 30 teams on Wednesday. No real surprises at the top: The Brooklyn Nets (54.5), Milwaukee Bucks (53.5), Los Angeles Lakers (51.5), Philadelphia Sixers (51.5), Utah Jazz (51.5) and Phoenix Suns (50.5) are the six teams with over-50-win lines. 

At the bottom, the Oklahoma City Thunder (22.5), Orlando Magic (24.5), Houston Rockets (24.5), Cleveland Cavaliers (25.5), Detroit Pistons (26.5) and San Antonio Spurs (29.5) are the six under-30 lines. 

Baring major injuries, all those projections sound about right to me. You can argue about the actual win totals (that’s what gambling is for), but generally speaking, the top six are going to be really good teams and the bottom six are going to stink. 

That leaves 18 teams somewhere in the middle, and many of them are harder to project even in general terms. That’s what we’re focusing on in this piece: The high-variance group. Below are five teams with what I would consider to be a pretty wide range of potential regular-season outcomes. 

Klay Thompson is the fulcrum on which Golden State’s season ultimately rests. If he comes back at an All-Star level in relatively short order, the Warriors are an elite team, perhaps on the short list of contenders, that could far surpass their 49.5 win total line in fighting for a top-four seed. If Thompson takes a while to get back and even longer to find peak form, Golden State could be treading water perhaps until the All-Star break. 

The Warriors made solid offseason moves. Otto Porter Jr., Andre Iguodala and Nemanja Bjelica should stabilize rotations. Even before Thompson returns, there’s a scenario where Jordan Poole continues to ascend, Andrew Wiggins backs up his solid two-way season, and James Wiseman along with rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody prove ready to contribute in a meaningful way that puts Golden State in a good place with the potential to be great come playoff time. 

There’s also a scenario where Poole and Wiggins regress, Wiseman and the rookies aren’t ready, Iguodala is more mentor than key player at this stage, and Thompson just isn’t quite the same that leaves the Warriors, as currently constructed, hanging around the play-in line in a Western Conference with pretty much zero margin for error. 

And that’s if Stephen Curry, 33, and Draymond Green, 31, stay healthy all season. If that doesn’t happen, forget about it. The Warriors could be scrambling for everything they’re worth just to make the playoffs or they could be a contender. That’s a big variance. And that’s not even including the scenario where they make a major trade and shake up everything we just talked about. Indeed, the Warriors could go a lot of different ways. 

The optimist would point out that the Bulls could be an elite offensive team. The pessimist would remind you Chicago’s defense could be awful. The 41.5-win line Caesars put on the Bulls reflects a balance between the two, projecting them as more or less a mediocre team. 

That said, an argument can be made that Chicago could end up being a lot better or worse than that projection. Zach LaVine could be the next Devin Booker, an extremely gifted scorer just waiting to shed the good-stats-bad-team label now that he’s surrounded with legit talent. Nikola Vucevic is an All-Star-level big. DeMar DeRozan has taken a beating from the analytics crowd over the years, but he remains a super-elite mid-range scorer. 

DeRozan running pick-and-roll with Vucevic, who can pop to the 3-point line, with LaVine ready for secondary actions and Lonzo Ball and Patrick Williams spaced in opposite corners is an idea you can get behind. In LaVine, DeRozan and Vucevic you have three guys who can dominate individual matchups and let everything trickle down from there. Coby White can score off the bench. Alex Caruso does a bit of everything. 

And the defense might not be so bad. On Friday, the Bulls traded Lauri Markkanen to Cleveland in a three-team deal that included Portland and brought back Derrick Jones Jr., who can wreak havoc as a long, athletic, highly switchable defender. Caruso, Ball and Williams are all upper-class defenders. LaVine improved last season and he showed in the Olympics that when he wants to commit, which he should this year with a real shot to win, he can be a plus defender. Vucevic is pretty firmly a drop center, but that can work in the regular season (backup center is a major hole). Throw in a little, or lot, of shooting luck and there’s a world in which the Bulls can get enough stops to give their offense a chance to outscore teams. 

To me, Brooklyn and Milwaukee are the only sure bets in the East. I like the Atlanta Hawks as a top-four team, but it’s hard to repeat magical runs. Everyone is expecting Kyle Lowry to do for the Miami Heat what Chris Paul did for Phoenix, but that’s a wait and see. Philly has to navigate the Ben Simmons mess. The New York Knicks are a wild card. So are the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics. If you told me Chicago was going to wind up a top-four seed, I wouldn’t call you crazy. 

On the other hand, if you told me the Bulls were going to be scrapping for a play-in spot, or even missing the playoffs altogether, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised by that either. Heck, there’s a decent chance this goes south so quickly that Chicago is looking to deal LaVine by the trade deadline for fear of him leaving for nothing next summer as a free agent. That would open the door to also deal Vucevic and maybe even DeRozan (if there would be any takers at $85 million over three years) in an effort to kickstart a rebuild. 

3. New York Knicks

The Knicks were not a good offense last season, bordering on bottom five, and that was exposed in the playoffs when they had no real way to create shots when Julius Randle went cold. New York addressed that this summer by adding Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. But what does that do to the defense that propped them up all last season? 

Everyone is rooting for Walker. He might not be the player he used to be, but if healthy, he’s still a big-time creator off pick-and-roll. That alone will make the Knicks a viable offense. If R.J. Barrett shoots consistently and Randle plays at an All-Star level again, with Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson (who could be a trade candidate) and Mitchell Robinson back in the mix and Tom Thibodeau’s penchant for maximizing regular-season efforts, the Knicks could be fighting for a top-four seed again. 

But there’s also the potential for major regression: Walker can’t stay healthy, Randle settles into a middle ground between what he’s been his entire career and what he was last season, Barrett just doesn’t materialize as glimpses of a consistent jumper fade and all the sudden the “Knicks are back!” facade is crumbling back toward the lottery. Neither scenario is terribly difficult to imagine. 

For all the talk about how Damian Lillard can’t compete for a title with the Blazers as currently constructed, this is still a really good team with arguably one of the five best starting lineups in the league. Depth and defense will be issues. On Friday, Portland acquired Larry Nance Jr., an elite defender. That will help. Neil Olshey expects his new coach Chauncey Billups to fix the rest. 

The viability of that theory depends on what you think “fix” means. Should the Blazers be a bottom-three defense? No. But they’re probably bottom-half defense, at best, even with Nance. The bottom line is they have Lillard, Norman Powell and CJ McCollum, and individual scoring — perhaps with a little more movement instituted by Billups — will continue to be the backbone of this team. And it’s a good backbone. 

The X-factor, of course, is Lillard. It feels like an official trade request is lurking right around the corner, and if that happens, even though he’s under contract for the next four seasons (player option in 2025), every projection goes out the window in Portland. If Lillard goes, McCollum, Robert Covington and perhaps Jusuf Nurkic won’t be far behind. This could unravel quickly. 

But for now, Portland is being forgotten about as a good team. I could easily see the Blazers staying together and fighting with the likes of Phoenix and Utah for a top-four seed. Lillard is that great. And for now, the Blazers still have him. 

Kawhi Leonard could very well miss the entire season. It’ll be interesting to watch Paul George go back to his Indiana days of being the clear-cut alpha expected to lead a team into contention. I like his chances. George looked like a top-10 player in the world when Leonard went out of last year’s playoffs. He’s arguably better suited for that kind of clarity, the pressure to produce notwithstanding, than he is tying to find the sweet spot alongside or behind other stars. 

If you think Terance Mann can be what he was in the playoffs for a whole season, and you like the Eric Bledsoe addition, and you believe Nicolas Batum has another really good year in him, and most importantly, if you truly trust that Reggie Jackson is, like, this big-time point guard, George has enough to keep the Clippers in the top half of the Western Conference. If Leonard can get back by the playoffs, you’ve got a contender on your hands. 

But all those things feel tenuous. The Clippers falling into play-in contention is not unreasonable. We’ll see what happens with the Warriors, Mavericks and Jamal Murray and the Nuggets. If the Blazers stay viable, and you pencil in the Lakers, Jazz and Suns, the Clippers don’t have to fall very far to, you know, fall pretty far. 

Other considerations:

  • Boston Celtics: Josh Richardson would appear to be a trade candidate, and if the Celtics make the right move, they could vault up the contender ladder with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown leading the way. But there’s also a chance this team, for reasons not all that easy to pinpoint, just doesn’t have it, much like last season, and another date with the the play-in tournament is in its future. 
  • New Orleans Pelicans: They could be the non-playoff team from a year ago that makes the leap. The makings are there. Brandon Ingram is a borderline All-Star and we know about Zion Williamson. We’ll see how effective the Lonzo Ball-for-Devonte’ Graham swap works out. It’s possible the Pelicans got their hopes up with Zion, only to find themselves on the clock to even keep him long term. 

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