When the 2021-22 season began in October, it kicked off the first normal NBA schedule since the COVID-19 pandemic paused the league in March 2020. The 2021 playoffs were played in NBA arenas again after the 2020 postseason was held in the NBA’s Orlando, Florida, bubble.
Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, who took the Eastern Conference, climbed out of an 0-2 hole to come back to beat the Phoenix Suns and win the title for the first time since 1971.
Kevin Durant returned from an Achilles injury to lead the Brooklyn Nets one shot shy of those NBA Finals. A consolation prize for Durant: leading Team USA to gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
The NBA offseason brought some change to the league, sending DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso to the Chicago Bulls, while Kyle Lowry headed to South Beach to team up with Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat. In the West, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony joined LeBron James on the Los Angeles Lakers. Stephen Curry moved into the No. 1 spot on the league’s all-time 3-point list on Dec. 14 with his 2,974th make from beyond the arc, and hit his 3,000th on Tuesday.
Among all of the on-court excitement of the past year, however, COVID-19 is still a major concern in the NBA as the year comes to a close. The league continues to update its protocols to adapt to the high number of players coming in and out of the health and safety protocols. Several other uncertainties remain unanswered into the new year, including the ongoing situations in Portland and Philadelphia regarding the futures of Damian Lillard and Ben Simmons, respectively.
With two days remaining in 2021, our NBA insiders reflect on the biggest moments and transactions of the past year and look at what lies ahead in 2022.
1. Fill in the blank: 2021 in the NBA has been ______.
Tim Bontemps: Unpredictable. While this certainly applies to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it includes on-court action, as well. The Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns both made returns to the NBA Finals for the first time in decades, and we saw several shocking moments in the postseason, including the Philadelphia 76ers’ Game 7 meltdown against the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. It applies off the court, as well, if you count the Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons situations.
Jamal Collier: Anyone’s game. The Nets and Lakers have spent all year looking more like super teams on paper than they have in practice, and it has created a feeling of parity around the league. The Phoenix Suns-Milwaukee Bucks showdown was one of the more unlikely NBA Finals matchups in history. There’s at least five or six teams right now that could make the case for winning the championship. In the aftermath of the height of the Warriors dynasty and LeBron James’ Finals streak, the NBA hasn’t felt this unpredictable in years.
Nick Friedell: Completed. The atmosphere was very strange, but for the most part, games have gotten played. It wasn’t the prettiest basketball at times, but the league followed up the 2020 bubble playoffs with a 2020-21 season in just over a year, which is a solid feat.
Kevin Pelton: Sporadically normal. After a 2020 that was anything but, this year began and is ending with teamwide COVID-19 outbreaks wreaking havoc on the schedule. In between, however, the arrival of vaccines and declining community transmission allowed us to have a representative postseason largely unaffected by the pandemic.
Ramona Shelburne: Better than nothing! I don’t think anyone had all that much fun playing or watching games in empty arenas while COVID-19 continued to ravage the world. The endless video calls and difficulties arranging even the simplest of meetings sapped the NBA of the personal connection we all find so much joy in. But I got to a place where I was just grateful we were able to have basketball at all during these times, and marveling when fans were able to return to arenas to give the playoffs a sense of normalcy.
2. What was the most memorable on-court moment of 2021?
Collier: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s game-saving block on Deandre Ayton in Game 4 of the NBA Finals. This is the play that best encapsulates what a generational talent Antetokounmpo is and what a special performance he delivered throughout the 2021 NBA Finals. His performance overall to clinch Game 6 is legendary, but for a single moment, Antetokounmpo pulled off something few players in league history could, guarding Devin Booker on a pick-and-roll, then recovering for a game-saving block on an alley-oop attempt by Ayton. This play will live on highlight reels for a long time.
Shelburne: Antetokounmpo’s 50-piece in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. I don’t often get emotional at games anymore, but when the weight of his journey from selling handbags on the streets of Athens, Greece, to NBA champion and Finals MVP culminated at that moment in Milwaukee, it was beautiful.
Bontemps: Antetokounmpo going for 50 points — including a 17-for-19 performance from the foul line — to close out Game 6 of the NBA Finals and deliver a championship to Milwaukee. It was the kind of iconic, all-time performance that we’ve seen so many great players have in those moments over the years, and allowed Antetokounmpo to move another level higher on the list of the elite players in the history of the sport.
Friedell: Antetokounmpo winning a title in Milwaukee. He has always said he wanted to win and stay in Milwaukee his entire career, and he made it happen. Through sheer will, he pulled the Bucks out of an 0-2 hole against the Suns and forever cemented his legacy. Regardless of what else he accomplishes in his career, Antetokounmpo’s accomplishment is a reminder that small-market teams can win if they have the right players around their star — and if they catch some breaks along the way.
Pelton: Jrue Holiday stealing the ball from Devin Booker in the closing seconds of Game 5 in the NBA Finals and lobbing an alley-oop to Antetokounmpo for the game-sealing and-1. I still can’t believe Holiday didn’t simply run the clock out in such a crucial situation, but I’m glad he didn’t.
3. Who was the best addition of 2021?
Collier: DeMar DeRozan to the Chicago Bulls. No other move changed the trajectory of a franchise like this one. The Bulls have gone from out of the playoffs for four straight seasons to currently one of the surprise top-three teams in the East. DeRozan has been the biggest reason. He’s having, perhaps, his best season at age 32, one that could change the perception about him as a player. He would likely finish in the top 10 in MVP voting if they took the ballot today.
Friedell: DeRozan has helped wake up the Bulls and is one of the main reasons the city of Chicago is getting excited about its basketball team again. DeRozan has had a really strong start to the season and has fit in nicely alongside Zach LaVine. The question for DeRozan, as it was for him in Toronto, will be if he can maintain the same high level of play once the playoffs begin.
Pelton: James Harden. In large part due to Harden’s untimely hamstring injury, things didn’t work out for the Nets in year one as they hoped. Still, Brooklyn will have more chances at a title so long as Harden plays at a high level. His first two games since returning from the health and safety protocols, with Kevin Durant still sidelined, were encouraging.
Bontemps: Evan Mobley to the Cleveland Cavaliers. From the moment LeBron James left in July 2018, the Cavaliers have been floundering. This July, that floundering ended when they scooped up Mobley with the No. 3 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. The combination of Mobley and another 2021 pickup, center Jarrett Allen, has turned Cleveland into one of the NBA’s best defensive teams, even projected to get home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. More importantly, Mobley looks like the kind of franchise player Cleveland desperately needed, and his arrival has completely transformed the franchise’s present and future.
Shelburne: Does Chris Paul count? Technically the Phoenix Suns traded for him before last season, but the full weight of his impact wasn’t felt until they went on their playoff run last year. If I can’t count CP3, I’ll go with Milwaukee acquiring P.J. Tucker at the trade deadline. They do not win a title without him.
4. Who is one player who had a rough/disappointing 2021 who you expect to rebound in 2022?
Bontemps: It’s hard to think of anyone more fitting for this distinction than Ben Simmons, whose last notable moment on a basketball court was passing up a wide-open dunk in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. For all of the drama that has surrounded him since then, however, whenever he does get back on an NBA court again, it won’t take long to remember why there’s so much attention paid to his absence in Philadelphia. Yes, he has flaws, but he’s a really good basketball player — and one team will benefit significantly from acquiring him at some point in 2022.
Pelton: Ben Simmons. If and when he’s traded — presuming Simmons feels mentally ready to play in a more supportive environment — I expect him to remind everyone what a valuable two-way contributor he can be outside the fourth quarter of playoff settings.
Shelburne: I know Anthony Davis has it in him to be a top-five player in the league because we all saw it in the Lakers’ 2020 championship run. I don’t know when or how he gets back to that level — but his legacy depends on it after what has been a rather dreadful 2021.
Collier: Damian Lillard. Between another first-round exit, in underwhelming fashion, and the current team lingering on the outside of the Western Conference playoff race, it’s hard to be excited about much with Portland right now. But Lillard, who turns 32 next summer, has been far too good to not bounce back in 2022. Hopefully he still has time in his prime to compete for a championship.
Friedell: It has already started at the end of 2021, but Draymond Green is set up to have a big 2022. He came into camp in good shape and is motivated after helping Team USA win gold at the Tokyo Olympics. He is mentally engaged at a higher level than at any point in the past two seasons because he knows his team has a legitimate chance to win a title, and he appears to be enjoying the role of mentor to a talented group of younger players coming behind him. Green’s 2021-22 season should end in another Defensive Player of the Year award, and maybe even another title.
5. Fact or fiction: A team that has never won an NBA title will win it all in 2022.
Collier: Fiction. I wouldn’t take that bet right now, not when the two safest bets on the board are two teams in each conference that have won championships recently in the Bucks and the Warriors. It’s far from a lock either of them actually make it to the Finals, but when healthy, the Bucks have continued to look like a juggernaut, and the Warriors look like their old selves.
Shelburne: Fiction. Brooklyn is the most talented team in the league, but I don’t see the Nets winning it all with Kyrie Irving as a part-time player. I like Phoenix a lot and could easily see the Suns getting back to the NBA Finals. But I think I’d still pick Golden State or Milwaukee over the Suns right now. If there’s a dark horse, it’s Miami or Chicago — both of whom have previously won titles.
Bontemps: Fiction. While there are two teams that haven’t won an NBA title with clear opportunities to do so in each conference — the Nets in the East and the Suns in the West — I would put them behind the teams I currently expect to make the Finals in both conferences, the Bucks and Warriors. But if we were answering this question on a percentage basis, rather than a simple yes or no, I’d say this is a pretty sizable probability, as the Nets and Suns are both worthy championship contenders.
Friedell: Fiction. If I had to pick the Finals matchup right now, I’d have to go with Bucks vs. Warriors. And while I’d like to wait until Klay Thompson comes back to make the pick in that series, all signs point to the Warriors getting back to the top of the West this season if they stay healthy. Irving is going to have a major say as to whether the Nets make it out of the East, but if I had to pick a team right now I’d go with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and the championship pedigree of the Warriors.
Pelton: More fiction than fact. Although potential first-timers Brooklyn, Phoenix and Utah remain leading contenders, I’d favor past champions Golden State and Milwaukee to win their respective conferences.