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Brew Hoop Neighborhood Watch: Making Sense of the 2021 Offseason (Part 2)

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And now we get to the real threats...

Syndication: Journal Sentinel Michael Sears / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Welcome to the Brew Hoop Neighborhood Watch. The NBA is a vibrant community, and while the Milwaukee Bucks are our preferred resident, we still want to be in touch with our neighbors around the league. After all, that’s what good neighbors are for. Today, we sift through the chaos that is the NBA’s offseason and see who presents the biggest challenge to the reigning NBA champions.

In Part 1, we sorted through most of the league who, at this point in time, doesn’t have a real chance to topple the mighty Milwaukee Bucks. This is Part 2, where things get real. Really real.


The Three Tiers of Contenders

You need a few things in order to be considered a contender in the NBA. Star power reigns supreme, but things like health and availability from your players, coaching and front office acumen, and relatively good luck matter as well. All of these factors come into the play over a long regular season and postseason, and the teams featured below should come out further ahead of their counterparts from Part 1.

But even in this tier, there are levels to consider. Some teams have a legitimate claim for the designation of “Finals Favorite,” while others might meet the criteria on paper but in reality they’re merely pretending. Some are in between, where they might not have the strongest outlook but they don’t need a ton of things to go their way for things to change.

So that’s what we’re doing today: reviewing the offseason of each of the league’s top teams and passing a (premature) verdict on their outlook for the 2021-22 NBA season. Who is a pretender, a potential contender, or a legitimate contender? Read on to find out.


Atlanta HawksPeachtree Hoops

Atlanta may have felt like a feel-good story last season, but they deserve attention simply by virtue of having made it to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Here’s their breakdown:

Gone: Tony Snell (to Portland, 1 year/$2.4M)
Gained: Delon Wright (via trade), Gorgui Dieng (1 year/$4.0M)
Kept: Trae Young (extended, 5 years/$207.0M), John Collins (5 years/$125.0M), Solomon Hill (1 year/$2.4M), Lou Williams (1 year/$5.0M)

Atlanta remains an incredibly deep, incredibly young team that consistently punches above its weight. They decided to stick with (for now) the team that made the Eastern Conference Finals last year and pushed the champs (that’s us!) to six games, and it’s difficult to critique that choice. Trae Young is now locked in long-term, as is John Collins, and they managed to upgrade their depth. From Peachtree Hoops:

Atlanta is poised to attack 2021-22 with much of the same group that powered them on the deepest postseason run in franchise history earlier this Summer. The addition of Delon Wright to the rotation should patch the Hawks’ biggest roster hole from last season, backup point guard, while Gorgui Dieng will man the backup center minutes while second-year center Onyeka Okonwgu rehabs from a torn labrum in his shoulder.

Sooner or later, this team will need to do something with the mass of young talent they’ve accumulated, and the Hawks certainly can’t pay all of their guys to stick around. Young is the centerpiece and is unlikely to go anywhere, but there are limited opportunities alongside him at the wing positions. Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter, and Cam Reddish all deserve playing time, and it’s not guaranteed Atlanta will have it if they want to also rely on veterans to make another deep playoff run.

This means that the table is set for the Hawks to swoop in and offer a competitive trade package for a star player who’s on the outs with his current team. There’s no telling who that player could be, but with the types of contracts that Atlanta can compile and the young prospects and picks they can dangle in front of a trade partner, you can be sure that the Hawks will be involved in any opportunity to pair their dynamo point guard with another stud.

Until then, though, Atlanta makes this list primarily based on reputation and respect for their playoff run last year. They did beat the New York Knicks, and the Philadelphia 76ers, and took two games off of the Bucks. It’s reasonable to question whether the Hawks can replicate their success from 2021. They did not get worse but only got marginally better, and that isn’t going to be enough for them to earn any attention as more than underdogs in the East this season.

Perhaps this is an arrogant analysis. Perhaps the Hawks’ run to the Conference Finals was no more or less “flukey” than the Bucks’ run to the NBA Finals. It’s possible that Trae Young takes another leap and can shoulder even more of the burden, and that the Atlanta supporting cast is able to keep up even more than last year. But at least comparatively, a top-tier contender needs a top-tier player to fuel it, and until further notice, Giannis is clearly on a tier above Trae. That’s what, for me, keeps them firmly in the middle of this exercise.

Verdict: Potential contenders

Brooklyn NetsNetsDaily

Brooklyn is, to put it bluntly, widely expected to usurp the Bucks’ position atop the Eastern Conference this season. Here’s their breakdown:

Gone: Spencer Dinwiddie (to Washington, 3 years/$54.0M), Jeff Green (to Denver, 2 years/$10.0M), Mike James (free agent)
Gained: Patty Mills (2 years/$12.0M), James Johnson (1 year/$2.6M)
Kept: Kevin Durant (extended, 4 years/$198.0M), Blake Griffin (1 year/$2.6M), Bruce Brown (qualifying offer, 1 year/$4.7M)

There are a lot of ways to look at how the Nets are situated to follow up last season’s disappointing second-round exit, and each and every one of them revolve around the trio of stars at the center of Brooklyn’s universe. From Sports Illustrated:

Not to rain on Milwaukee’s parade, but in a very plausible alternate universe—one where Kevin Durant wears smaller sneakers—we’re entering the 2021–22 season pondering the potential of a Nets dynasty. Durant has a strong case as the best player alive. We should see a better James Harden in his first full season in Brooklyn. Kyrie Irving is an elite point guard when healthy, and general manager Sean Marks has done an impressive job filling the margins of Brooklyn’s roster with quality contributors. Good health is never a guarantee, though from a talent standpoint, it’s hard to pick anyone but the Nets to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy next summer.

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Whatever your feelings on how they managed to construct this team, or the stunts pulled by various members of the roster to end up in Brooklyn, the fact of the matter is that this group is legitimately scary to face off against. Durant is in for the long haul, and the reasonable assumption is that Harden and Irving will follow suit. They are not the youngest or the least fragile players in the league, but as the NBA returns to normal we should see the Brooklyn Nets at the height of their powers far more frequently than we did last season.

What’s more, the Nets added a difference maker in the backcourt in Patty Mills, who will take the spot of the Washington-bound (and previously injured) Spencer Dinwiddie that was not utilized in the playoffs. This comes alongside the retention of other postseason difference-makers like Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown, while Jeff Green is replaced with James Johnson.

It’s safe to say that we’re going to be dealing with these guys for a while. The Nets can stop Giannis about as well as the Bucks can stop KD (read: they can’t), but the combination of Irving/Harden is one of the few that might surpass that of Holiday/Middleton. So then it becomes a question of whether the Bucks’ system can elevate the rest of the team’s role players to outproduce the top-heavy Brooklyn roster. It worked last year...when Harden and Kyrie missed significant time. Can that be replicated? If these two teams cross paths again, it’s unlikely that such a one-sided depletion will occur again.

Verdict: Legitimate contenders

Denver NuggetsDenver Stiffs

Denver fizzled out in the second round last year against the eventual Western Conference champs, but they boast the reigning MVP and as a result should be in the mix. Here’s their breakdown:

Gone: JaVale McGee (to Phoenix, 1 year/$5.0M), Paul Millsap (free agent)
Gained: Jeff Green (2 years/$10.0M), DeAndre’ Bembry (1 year/$1.9M)
Kept: Will Barton (2 years/$32.0M), JaMychal Green (2 years/$17.0M)

Nikola Jokic will put on a show and the Nuggets will put up wins, but how far can they really go this season? With Jamal Murray out indefinitely with a torn ACL to rehabilitate, Denver will rely even more heavily on Michael Porter Jr. to continue his breakout and become an every-night offensive threat. But when the game slows down, a team needs to be able to survive on defense, and Porter hasn’t been consistent in that regard. From Denver Stiffs:

In order to become an elite team once again, the Nuggets will have to find better, more sustainable ways to guard opposing perimeter players. With Jokić already operated as a player who can’t switch onto perimeter players consistently, the Nuggets can’t also have Porter operating in the same mold. He must be able to use his length, athleticism, and mobility to guard on switches, at least at a higher level than he has demonstrated so far. There’s reason to believe he can do better, and however much he improves, along with the rest of Denver’s improvements, may determine if Denver has a championship ceiling or not.

Without Murray available, the Nuggets simply have too many defensive deficiencies. They have very little rim protection, and even less now without JaVale McGee. They struggle to defend on the same level as they produce on offense, and it’s unrealistic to expect Nikola Jokic to do any more than he’s already doing. Can anyone step up in Murray’s absence to steady the backcourt, alongside another leap from Michael Porter Jr? And can it all happen in the span of one season? Odds are that it can’t, no matter how well Nikola Jokic performs.

Verdict: Pretenders

Golden State WarriorsGolden State Of Mind

The dynasty of Golden State seemingly crumbled away a few years ago; once Kevin Durant left and their key contributors fell to injury, the Warriors became a shell of their former selves. But despite missing the playoffs last year, the Warriors are reloading and could become a threat in the West again. Here’s their breakdown:

Gone: Kelly Oubre Jr. (to Charlotte, 2 years/$25.0M), Kent Bazemore (to Los Angeles, 1 year/$2.4M)
Gained: Otto Porter Jr. (1 year/$2.4M), Andre Iguodala (1 year/$2.6M), Nemanja Bjelica (1 year/$2.1M)
Kept: Steph Curry (extended, 4 years/$215.0M)

We’ve seen the theory in action before: surround Steph Curry, Klay Thompson (recovering from a lengthy injury absence), and Draymond Green with some shooting and some defense, and you can make special things happen. This Warriors team has recovered some of that lost form, while also boasting far more impressive potential in the form of prospects like James Wiseman and Jonathan Kuminga. There’s simply a lot to like...if it can all hold together. From Golden State Of Mind:

Andre Iguodala, Nemanja Bjelica, and Otto Porter Jr. are better than Kent Bazemore, Eric Paschall, and Brad Wanamaker. Klay Thompson is better than Kelly Oubre Jr. Jordan Poole is substantially better entering 2021-22 than he was entering 2020-21, and so is Juan Toscano-Anderson. James Wiseman is a year older and more experienced (is he James Wiserman?), and Andrew Wiggins has greater familiarity with the system.

On paper, this year’s Dubs squad squashes last year’s, which is good, since last year’s fell short of not just the championship, but the playoffs altogether. But “on paper” always comes with a few caveats, and one of those caveats is this: are the Warriors a little bit too reliant on players that are injury prone?

The Warriors have a real chance at reviving their offensive dominance that had gone dormant for the past few years, if they can stay healthy. That is easy to see, and it’s easy to overlook that Golden State also had the fifth-best defense in the league last season. Imagine a lineup with Draymond at center, Steph and Klay being Steph and Klay, and a healthy Otto Porter and Bjelica spacing out the defense. This Golden State roster is a gamble, but with the baseline of top-end talent that they are hoping to return this season, it seems like a safer gamble than you might think.

Verdict: Potential contenders

Los Angeles LakersSilver Screen and Roll

Los Angeles is only one year removed from defending their own NBA title, and they’ve done nothing this offseason if not draw attention for their strategy to reclaim the throne...by turning over damn near the entire roster. Here’s their breakdown:

Gone: Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell (to Washington, via trade), Alex Caruso (to Chicago, 4 years/$37.0M), Andre Drummond (to Philadelphia, 1 year/$2.4M), Ben McLemore (to Portland, 1 year/$2.4M), Markieff Morris (to Miami, 1 year/$2.6M), Dennis Schroder (to Boston, 1 year/$5.9M), Jared Dudley (to Dallas, coaching), Wes Matthews (free agent)
Gained: Russell Westbrook (via trade), Kendrick Nunn (2 years/$10.2M), Carmelo Anthony (1 year/$2.6M), Trevor Ariza (1 year/$2.6M), Wayne Ellington (1 year/$2.6M), Dwight Howard (1 year/$2.6M), Kent Bazemore (1 year/$2.4M), Malik Monk (1 year/$1.8M),
Kept: Talen Horton-Tucker (3 years/$30.8M)

What a busy summer! It appears that LeBron James is not content to let last year’s early exit become a pattern, and with Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook flanking him there is no shortage of talent on the roster. But, uh, how is this supposed to work, exactly? From Silver Screen And Roll:

Westbrook was preemptively responding to the “there’s only one ball” line of criticism that tends to crop up whenever a team has multiple ball-dominant stars like himself and James. However, that criticism can be often misplaced — James Harden and Chris Paul nearly reached the NBA Finals with the Houston Rockets in 2018, Harden and Westbrook had Houston’s offense humming with a small-ball attack in early 2020 before the season was suspended due to COVID-19, and the Harden/Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving trio on the Brooklyn Nets thrived when all three could get on the court at the same time.

That said, adding Westbrook to the Lakers’ core duo of James and Anthony Davis will definitely require some adjustments from all three. James, Westbrook and Davis were all finished among the NBA’s top 25 leaders in usage rate among all players — James finished 11th with a 31.0 USG%, Westbrook finished 19th with a 29.5 USG% and Davis finished 24th with a 28.7 USG%. Those marks are even more eye-popping when considering the fact that all three veterans dealt with significant injuries throughout the unique 2020-21 season. In theory, then, the “there’s only one ball” argument could actually work in the Lakers’ favor — the presence of a healthy Davis and especially Westbrook should allow James to take many more breaks from initiating the offense over the course of the season.

Okay, so there’s a plan in Los Angeles to share the ball, but how about shooting the ball? Much of the Lakers’ volume from behind the arc has disappeared from seasons past, and adding a few shooting specialists isn’t going to replace the fact that the three top players in the Lakers’ rotation are LeBron (one of the best ever and a very good shooter), Davis (a productive player but a streaky floor-spacer), and Westbrook (a dynamite performer...and one of the worst three-point shooters ever). With only two spots on the floor alongside them, can the Lakers create enough space around their superstar trio to operate?

There are a lot of big names on the Lakers roster nowadays, but it’s fair to question whether those names still have enough game to back it up, and even if the individual talents are still there and still performing will they be merely a sum of their parts, or something more? It’s a bold strategy, especially in the Olympic diving pool that is the Western Conference (read: it’s deep as hell), but it feels as if the Lakers will still need another break to go their way in order to get back to the Finals.

Verdict: Potential contenders

Miami HeatHot Hot Hoops

Bucks fans thoroughly enjoyed dousing the Heat in the playoffs last year, but Miami’s upgrades for this season mean that contests between the two teams will be a wholly different challenge. Here’s their breakdown:

Gone: Kendrick Nunn (to Los Angeles, 2 years/$10.2M), Trevor Ariza (to Los Angeles, 1 year/$2.6M), Nemanja Bjelica (to Golden State, 1 year/$2.1M), Andre Iguodala (to Golden State, 1 year/$2.6M), Goran Dragic, Precious Achiuwa (via trade, to Toronto)
Gained: Kyle Lowry (via sign-and-trade, 3 years/$85.0M), PJ Tucker (2 years/$14.3M), Markieff Morris (1 year/$2.6M)
Kept: Jimmy Butler (extended, 3 years/$146.4M), Duncan Robinson (extended, 5 years/$89.9M), Dewayne Dedmon (1 year/$2.4M), Victor Oladipo (1 year/$2.4M), Udonis Haslem (1 year/$2.6M)

At first glance, the players joining the Heat roster seem like they’ll provide a ton more than the players leaving Miami this offseason. Markieff Morris and forever-Buck PJ Tucker provide depth (and girth) on the wing alongside their tough-nose mentality that comes in handy in the playoffs. Kyle Lowry is a perfect fit with the fabled “Heat Culture,” with his savvy playmaking, veteran grittiness, and enthusiasm for flopping selling contact. More seriously, his durability (even at age 35) should be an upgrade over Goran Dragic and provide support to Bam Adebayo and the recently-extended Jimmy Butler, who each had too much other responsibility to worry about. An upgrade isn’t a panacea, though, as Lowry might be cast as something he’s not (anymore): a primary scorer for a serious playoff squad. From Hot Hot Hoops:

Although Lowry slots in as the third option on this team, this Big Three is far different from other Big Threes, such as the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh one. Butler and Adebayo can both dominate games without scoring 20 points. In the Heat’s first-round sweep over the Indiana Pacers in 2020, Dragic led Miami in scoring. Lowry will have to lead the Heat in scoring sometimes for the Heat to win.

Don’t get me wrong, the spacing issues and scoring slumps that stymied Miami against the Bucks’ sweep of the Heat should be remedied by Lowry’s presence. Is that enough, especially when little else is getting changed? Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson (also recently extended) will each need to play major roles but each still have glaring flaws in their game, and Miami as a unit still lacks the size to compete against larger lineups. Perhaps the lottery ticket that is Victor Oladipo’s quad introduces yet another perimeter creator to the mix, and Miami can score by committee enough to get by.

There is simply too much “if” involved for me to be a believer in these Miami Heat.

Verdict: Pretenders

Philadelphia 76ersLiberty Ballers

Philly flamed out in the second round last year, and has yet to make it to the Conference Finals. Could this be the season where the Sixers finally break through? Here’s their breakdown:

Gone: Dwight Howard (to Los Angeles, 1 year/$2.6M), George Hill (to Milwaukee, 2 years/$8.0M), Mike Scott (free agent)
Gained: Andre Drummond (1 year/$2.4M), Georges Niang (2 years, $6.7M)
Kept: Joel Embiid (extended, 4 years/$196.0M), Danny Green (2 years/$20.0M), Furkan Korkmaz (extended, 3 years/$15.0M)
In Limbo: Ben Simmons (???)

Where do we even start with this team? There are so many angles, but only one that beats them all by sheer comedic value:

Yes, the guy that Embiid trolled over and over and over is now his backup at center. On a minimum contract. In the same offseason that Embiid signed a max extension. That will never not be funny. Truthfully, Drummond has talent and can fill the rebounding void left by Dwight Howard’s return to Los Angeles, but historically he’s been...not good. Similarly not good was George Hill last year (hopefully that was a fluke and not a trend...) who left for Milwaukee, and the Sixers’ wing shooting was shored up by retaining Furkan Korkmaz, Danny Green, and bringing in Georges Niang from Utah.

Looming over everything is the ongoing Ben Simmons situation, which feels less like a “saga” and more like a “clusterf**k.” For simplicity, we can summarize everything going on with Simmons, since the beginning, as follows:

  • Simmons gets drafted 1st overall during “The Process” and becomes part of the core
  • Simmons grows into a bona fide defensive stud and playmaking savant
  • Simmons and Embiid coexist out of necessity, but it’s not ideal; one can’t shoot and the other won’t shoot
  • Embiid improves into a legitimate MVP candidate while Simmons’ development plateaus
  • Simmons borks up a crucial playoff possession in front of everybody...
  • ...and in return, everybody in Philly throws Simmons under the bus.

So now he wants out. I’d want out, too. But everybody is in “wait and see” mode because Sixers GM Daryl Morey is asking for the world, and the ball remains in Philadelphia’s court. He has rebuffed advances from seemingly every team with a credible shot at trading for Simmons, always wanting more. The most recent trading partner is the Timberwolves, who have seen their trade talks stall out...just like everyone else. From Liberty Ballers:

If reports or rumors that Simmons doesn’t want a “bad” team like Toronto (or that he might prefer California) are to be believed then we might infer his feelings about the Wolves; even if playing with a stretch big like Karl Anthony-Towns might be a best-case scenario for Simmons’ skillset. Ben’s stellar defense would complement KAT as well. That would be some very very fun basketball to watch. But like Woj and Kraw discuss, there aren’t the “win now” players on the T-Wolves that might tempt Morey to pull that trigger. D’Angelo Russell battled injuries recently and probably does not help the Sixers maintain their apparent lead as a Dame Lillard destination in the event Dame eventually wants a new home. Who knows if he’d help them maintain their claim to a top 3 seed in the east either.

What about the idea that the Sixers might take on a couple of solid role players and as many picks as they can get? Might they then maintain their standing as a potential top seed in the east and also maintain their standing as a top landing spot for Lillard? Can they thread that needle? Maybe, but it’s difficult to imagine.

Ben Simmons hasn’t taken his own offensive development seriously (don’t let the offseason videos fool you...) since he entered the league, so it’s fair to guess that he’s not taking his future in Philadelphia seriously either. If he doesn't get traded, the situation borders on untenable. Joel Embiid is good enough to carry a team to a top seed in the East...as long as his body holds up. Tobias Harris as the third option will keep the Sixers respectable, but as long as they suit up in their current configuration? I can’t say they’ll be anything more than that, not without a major shakeup.

Verdict: Pretenders

Phoenix SunsBright Side of the Sun

A worthy opponent in the NBA Finals, Phoenix had some tough choices to make for retooling their roster. The path they chose appears to be largely based on continuity, though not without a few additional pieces to bolster their efforts. Here’s their breakdown:

Gone: Torrey Craig (to Indiana, 2 years/$10.0M)
Gained: Landry Shamet (via trade), JaVale McGee (1 year/$5.0M), Elfrid Payton (1 year/$2.2M)
Kept: Chris Paul (4 years/$120.0M), Cam Payne (3 years/$19.0M), Frank Kaminsky (1 year/$2.1M), Abdel Nader (2 years/$4.1M)

The Suns answered the CP3 question with very little delay, signing the 36-year old Point God to an astounding amount of money over the next four years. The Paul-Devin Booker pairing is a potent one, as their combined offensive prowess makes life easier for role players like Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, and (fellow role player, for now) Deandre Ayton.

One of the Suns’ fatal flaws was their lack of size, somewhat mitigated now with the signing of veteran JaVale McGee. Whether he can be available by the time the playoffs are in full swing, or if he can offer more than Frank Kaminsky did at the same position, are open questions, ones the Suns will have to answer. Adding Landry Shamet as an additional bench scorer should help keep reserve lineups clicking (partnering with the NBA’s Lazarus, Cam Payne). There are a lot of small improvements here and very few losses, which bodes well for the regular season.

So why doesn’t anybody believe in them this time around? From Bright Side Of The Sun:

After advancing to the 2021 NBA Finals and upgrading their roster this offseason, the Phoenix Suns appear to be in a position to compete for a title again in 2021-22. But does anybody outside of this website community think so?

Maybe not. On Thursday, ESPN NBA writer Tim Bontemps released an NBA offseason survey [...] None of those people picked the Suns to repeat as Western Conference champions and advance to the NBA Finals. The Los Angeles Lakers had the most votes to win the West (five), followed by the Golden State Warriors (two), Utah Jazz (two) and Denver Nuggets (one).

Yeah, that’s got to be frustrating.

Frustrating, yes. Accurate? ...probably.

Each of the following statements is true: both the Suns and Bucks earned their way to the NBA Finals last year, and both the Suns and Bucks benefited from their paths being made easier due to the absence of crucial opponents. For Milwaukee, their life was much easier with limitations to Goran Dragic, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Trae Young, and (in the end) Dario Saric and Chris Paul. Likewise for the Suns, an otherwise-bumpy path was smoothed out considerably with injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron James, Jamal Murray, and Kawhi Leonard. It’s unreasonable to expect everything in April to look the same as it does now in August, but it’s equally unreasonable to predict future performance and assign potential limits to others while ignoring possible limits to yourselves.

The Suns can make the Finals again. They just need some things to fall into place for them to get there. Just like last year.

Verdict: Potential contenders

Utah JazzSLC Dunk

As Bucks fans are all too familiar with, Utah secured the league’s best record last season only to fall short (far short) of their ultimate goal, and now they have to prove that their excellence translates to the postseason. Here’s their breakdown:

Gone: Derrick Favors (to Oklahoma City, via trade), Georges Niang (to Philadelphia, 2 years/$6.7M)
Gained: Rudy Gay (3 years/$18.5M), Hassan Whiteside (1 year/$2.4M), Eric Paschall (via trade)
Kept: Mike Conley (3 years/$68.0M)

There is a lot to like about this Jazz team, and that’s been the case for a while now. Their top-7 players make up one of the most well-rounded groups in the NBA; Donovan Mitchell is the superstar guard, Rudy Gobert is the defensive stalwart, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, and Royce O’Neal are a trio of versatile forwards, Mike Conley is the steady point man, and Jordan Clarkson is an absolute microwave off the bench. They’ve won at a nearly 63% rate over the last five years under Quin Snyder (0.628 since 2016-17). But over that same span, they’re a sub-500 team (0.422) in the playoffs, including getting ousted by the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round after Kawhi Leonard injured his knee. So why should we believe in them?

At a certain level, they know that this is their best shot, and their best player is preparing to take the next step. From SLC Dunk:

Donovan Mitchell continues to exceed expectations and get better each season. Since then, Donovan has increased his points per game in every season. He’s become a great leader both on and off the court. He’s embedded himself in Utah Jazz history, casually breaking records held by franchise legends. He’s led the Jazz to the playoffs every single season he’s been here, advancing to the second round two of of the four years. He’s been named an All-star in back-to-back seasons, continues to collect endorsement and brand deals every year.

Considering all of Mitchell’s success so far in Utah, what could possibly be on his mind now? The Jazz fell short months ago in the playoffs, after some bad luck with injuries, and a couple really poor stretches of basketball. Justin Zanik, with a new sense of power and responsibility, made some immediate moves to address the glaring weaknesses the Jazz showed in the playoff loss against the clippers: wing defense/athleticism, and center depth. They signed Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside, and traded for Donovan Mitchell’s BFF from prep school Eric Paschall. These moves undoubtedly make the Utah Jazz a better team than they were last year, when they finished with the NBA’s best record.

The Jazz, too, know that this is their best shot. Think about it, and all of the other Western Conference teams that they have to compete against:

  • The Lakers are filled to the brim with star power, but they have to prove it actually works.
  • The Clippers are missing Kawhi, and have their ceiling lowered as a result.
  • The Mavericks have Luka Doncic, but the roster around him has major limitations.
  • The Nuggets have Nikola Jokic, but no Jamal Murray.
  • The Trail Blazers have Damian Lillard, but Portland is in the same “prove it” zone as Utah.
  • The Suns made the Finals, but could it have been lightning in a bottle?
  • The Warriors will mount an effort to return to the mountaintop, but it’s an awful long climb.
  • Who else is going to challenge the Jazz out West?

No, the Jazz have never done it with this team. Until last year, neither had the Bucks. There are plenty of questions about Utah and their viability as a Finals contender, but all of those questions are at least under their own control to answer. Just like the Bucks last year, even if they got a little help along the way.

Verdict: Legitimate contenders


But what about...

Milwaukee Bucks

Gone: PJ Tucker (to Miami, 2 years/$14.3M), Bryn Forbes (to San Antonio, terms unknown), Sam Merrill (via trade), Jeff Teague (free agent)
Gained: Rodney Hood (1 year/$2.2M), Semi Ojeleye (1 year/$1.8M), George Hill (2 years/$8.0M), Grayson Allen (via trade)
Kept: Bobby Portis (2 years/$8.9M), Thanasis Antetokounmpo (2 years/$3.6M)

The loss of PJ Tucker stings, but the lessons he helped the Bucks learn are invaluable and will last for as long as Milwaukee’s big three suits up for Cream City. As an on-court contributor, Tucker had major limits, and the Bucks now have a whole regular season to test out alternative options and see what benefits they might offer. Forbes’ decision to return to San Antonio was understandable, given how he fell out of the rotation in the playoffs, but everyone else in the regular group returns for next season. Even Bobby Portis, Milwaukee’s new cult hero, and Mike Budenholzer, the best coach in franchise history.

Where the Bucks have managed to improve is in the middle of the roster, the group of players who will bolster depth in the regular season and might make the postseason rotation, depending on availability and matchups. We know that Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the fulcrum of the team, and the players around them have been fully reinforced. Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis are two big bigs who both fit with Giannis and are flexible enough to play old school (in the paint) and new school (behind the arc). Semi Ojeleye is no PJ Tucker, but he’s a young athlete at the forward position who can shoot, which is always worth a look.

With George Hill as a backup point guard, the Bucks are no longer forced into relying on quality minutes from Jeff Teague in order to put another ball-handler on the floor to give Jrue a break. Hill is no longer (maybe he never was) an 82-game player, but he has proven capable in the playoffs. With Donte DiVincenzo’s availability up in the air, Grayson Allen and Rodney Hood each provide useful skills that complement the roster’s core. And to top it all off, Thanasis is the ultimate hype man, beloved in the locker room and able to bring people to their feet and get through to his younger brother whenever he might need it.

But beyond all that, no matter what the Bucks did this offseason, they have Giannis Antetokounmpo at his absolute best. Giannis is not just the most devastating physical force in basketball, or a superstar who excels at doing the big things and the little things, or a role model who truly accepts that responsibility...he is all of those things, all at once, and he has gotten a view from the top of the world. And his sole focus: getting back to the top.

Who’s going to stop him?

Verdict: Legitimate contenders


So, there you have it. Trophies are not claimed in August, but earned in June. The Bucks have their work cut out for them if they want to hang onto the title for another trip around the sun, and there are plenty of teams who will try to push them off the edge and claim it for themselves.

Which teams are in your top tier for this season? Who do you expect to see at the end of the line, and whose chances are overstated? Let us know in the comments, the new season will be here before you know it!