The new NBA season is upon us and, as usual, last season feels like it happened three years ago. The 2021-22 season is important for much of the league because of past storylines that remain relevant.
Before we dive into the juicy new basketball season, here's a refresher on some of the biggest takeaways from last season. For us to fully appreciate another massive serving of hoops, it's important to remember where we came from last season.
Compressed schedule gone
The biggest change we’re about to experience is the decompressing of the schedule. We’re back to teams playing 82 games across six months. Before the whole COVID-19 situation struck in 2020, the NBA was already cutting down on back-to-backs and four-games-in-five-nights schedules for teams. We get that level scheduling back this year, along with the regular All-Star Week break in February.
This all matters because last season was a borderline disaster for teams health-wise. The two 2020 finalists in the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat barely got a month break before the 2020-21 season started. During last season, several players, including superstars, missed plenty of games because of the compressed schedule, along with understandably strict COVID-19 protocols. Almost every team in the playoffs saw at least one of their stars suffer an injury.
While injuries are unpredictable, it will be good for everyone that the NBA is going back to a normal spread of games. Players get to recover. Fans don't have to sit through games without their favorite players.
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Who were the best teams?
The Utah Jazz and Philadelphia 76ers were the top seeds last year. They both were tipped to be heavy NBA Finals favorites in the playoffs but both crumbled when they got to the second round.
The Jazz were by far the best team in the regular season, finishing with a league-best 52-20 record and +9.3 Net rating. But an early ankle to star Donovan Mitchell in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers dampened their season. Mitchell did return and valiantly tried to lead the Jazz back but the Clippers, even without Kawhi Leonard, proved too much.
For the Sixers, the regular season saw them maintain a relatively healthy core – a big boon since both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were healthy for the playoffs unlike in past seasons. After a slew of injuries hit fellow Eastern Conference contenders, the Sixers were title favorites at one point until they got shelled by the Atlanta Hawks in seven games.
Both these teams are in precarious situations. The Jazz are entering the regular season intact, bringing back most of the core from last season’s team. But something is bubbling in Utah. They let go of their entire training staff. They have their stars in Mitchell and Gobert locked up for at least the next four years. After another disappointing playoff exit, many insiders are speculating this season to potentially be one of the most eventful in recent Jazz history, if they don’t start strong.
ALSO READ: Storylines to follow for all teams in the West
While the Jazz go about their business quietly, the Sixers have been in a very public spat with their All-Star Ben Simmons. Many things led to the Sixers’ demise in the playoffs but people will point to Simmons passing up on a wide-open dunk in the final minutes of Game 7 as Philadelphia’s biggest flub. Since then, Simmons has asked to be traded, released a list of teams he preferred to be traded to, refused to talk to his teammates, and returned to Philly to practice with the team again. All of this happened while he still has four years left on his current deal.
This is all to say that the top seed in either conference has barely mattered for the better part of the last decade. Teams and players have become smarter with their load management and often the best regular season teams don’t live up to the billing in the playoffs. Postseason basketball has become a totally different product from the regular season variety. The 82-game grind is still important, but it seems that earning home-court advantage through some rounds in the postseason is enough for the top NBA squads.
There were no fans last season
Watching games from the start of last season feels like it happened in another timeline. Sure, as Filipino sports fans we’re still getting our local sports in bubbles but in the U.S., audiences have been back for a while.
COVID restrictions slowly eased last season until we finally saw full crowds back for the playoffs -- just in time for Madison Square Garden to meet their new nemesis and for Phoenix Suns fans to progressively lose their minds as their team got deeper into the playoffs.
This year, with a majority of the league fully vaccinated, we’re going to get a league further distancing themselves from the pandemic viewing experience. Sure there's still a very vocal minority of players refusing to get vaccinated, but the league, local governments, and teams have rightfully put up stricter guidelines to prevent an outbreak.
Perhaps the team that felt the brunt of the pandemic was the Toronto Raptors. No other team had to play their home games thousands of miles away from their actual homecourt. This year should be a celebration for Raptors fans as they get their team back. Losing Kyle Lowry was a big blow but Toronto still has enough young pieces left to seriously contend for a playoff spot in the East.
Bucks’ title run was more miraculous than we remember it
When people bring up the 2021 NBA champions Milwaukee Bucks 10 years from now, the first things people will remember will probably be Giannis Antetokounmpo's 50-point outburst in Game 6 of the Finals or Kevin Durant’s potential almost game-winning shot in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Those moments pretty much swung the Bucks’ title run but we should never forget how Milwaukee closed out the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals. After Giannis injured his knee in Game 5, it looked like the Hawks had the upper hand with a deeper roster and Trae Young was set to return in one of the following games. The Bucks ended up closing out the series without the two-time MVP, thanks to solid efforts from Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Brook Lopez.
By the grace of the basketball gods, Giannis was somehow able to recover in time for the NBA Finals, where he created several immortal moments. This is all to say that the Bucks were a solid squad last year even beyond Giannis. Yet the defending champs aren’t being talked about enough as repeat favorites. Sure, other contenders like the Lakers and Nets should be big threats if they remain healthy, but the Bucks pretty much have the same team back, minus PJ Tucker. They aren’t like the 2019 Toronto Raptors who lost their best player in the offseason.
The Bucks have also been consistently great in the regular season so don’t be surprised if Milwaukee comes out stomping teams en route to a top seed.
ALSO READ: Storylines to follow for all teams in the East
The Play-In Tournament
Without looking it up, can you remember all four teams from each conference that participated in the Play-In Tournament last season. Pretty hard, no?
The Play-In concept is still very new and we’re still trying to gauge exactly the success of the teams that qualify for it. It delivered two very dramatic games among teams of close quality in the West (Lakers vs Warriors then Grizzlies vs Warriors). In the East, all play-in games were drubbings.
It's going to be interesting to see how much NBA franchises value making the Play-In moving forward since it will also lock out teams from moving up in the NBA Draft lottery. More teams tried harder to win games towards the end of the season which solved a bit of the NBA’s problem with the quality of regular season games. Hopefully, the Play-In continues to be a worthwhile goal for most teams.