July 27, 2021

Ranking the Top 5 Contenders for 2022 NBA Championship

The NBA’s long, arduous 2020-21 season has finally come to a close after the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Phoenix Suns to become NBA champions for the first time in 50 years. 

But now that it's the offseason, it's time to look toward the future. 

Before what's expected to be a busy offseason, there are some clear contenders for next year's NBA title. 

Will the Bucks repeat? Will the Brooklyn Nets or Los Angeles Lakers bounce back? Could the Clippers compete while Kawhi is on the mend? What about those rising Suns? 

With the 2021 NBA Draft on the horizon, let's take a look at the top-five contenders for next year's championship. 

5. Phoenix Suns

The Suns were two wins away from a championship, and are set to bring back virtually their entire lineup. However, there is one player whose future is quite murky: Chris Paul.

Paul has a $44 million player option for next season. A few years ago, when it appeared he was slowing down, everyone assumed it would be a no-brainer decision to pick up the option. But in the past two seasons, Paul has been phenomenal.

With the Oklahoma City Thunder in the bubble, Paul averaged 21/7/5. This postseason with the Suns, he was even better. In the NBA Finals, Paul averaged 22 points and 8.3 assists on a scorching 55% from the field and 52% from deep.

At 36, Paul is now likely to decline his option and try to lock in one last multi-year extension that will take him through the end of his career. It’s hard to imagine him leaving Phoenix. He has a great relationship with the coaching staff and front office, and the young players love him. But could he have a wandering eye to play with his pal LeBron James in L.A., or sign with his former agent Leon Rose and the New York Knicks?

Paul is as competitive as they come, and the best place to win could easily be Phoenix. They literally just made the Finals, and Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges will only get better. It’s very possible this Suns team could be better next season with a few tweaks around the edges.

If Paul returns, the Suns will be as formidable as ever. But the possibility that he flees is certainly going to keep Suns brass up at night.

4. L.A. Clippers

The Clippers were dealt some brutal injury luck this postseason. First Serge Ibaka, their most reliable big man, bowed out with a back injury after two playoff games. Then Kawhi Leonard, unfortunately, partially tore his ACL against the Jazz

Hopefully, Ibaka and Leonard will be fully recovered by next postseason, but there’s still work to do with this roster, and that starts with retaining their own. Reggie Jackson and Nic Batum are both set to become unrestricted free agents, and they were absolutely pivotal these playoffs.

Jackson transformed into a lethal one-on-one bucket-getter whose veins turned to ice whenever the Clippers needed him, while Batum capably morphed into the perfect small-ball five. Between Jackson sizzling Rudy Gobert in isolation and Batum holding him in check on defense, they were a big reason why the Clippers were able to close out the Jazz without Leonard.

Another reason behind LA’s magical run? Paul freaking George. The 31-year-old forward was phenomenal this postseason, averaging 27 points, 9.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists. George silenced his playoff haters, and as long as he’s on the Clippers, they’re going to be a tough out no matter what.

As for the rest of the roster, the Rajon Rondo deal didn’t quite work out. “Playoff Rondo” appeared for a few spurts this postseason, but he was more of a mirage. His leadership was still very important, but the Clippers are already fishing for more backcourt help. If they retain Jackson, that’s a great start, but they should also pursue Lowry and Ball, two guards who would be ideal fits in their system.

If Leonard returns in free agency and is healthy by next postseason, the Clippers will have as good a chance as anybody to win their first title.

3. Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers have a lot of work to do before next season, but the simple fact is they’ll employ a healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and that goes a long way.

James and Davis' mere presence alone catapults the Lakers to contender status. Even though James will be 37 by next postseason, if he’s healthy, he’s still one of the most difficult matchups in the league thanks to his next-level smarts and incredible strength to bully defenders. 

Davis was hampered all season by injuries, but if he’s back to 100% next season, the Lakers will be virtually guaranteed a top-10 defense.

As for the rest of the roster? That’s certainly up in the air. Multiple reports are indicating James and Co. are searching for a floor general. Could it be Kyle Lowry? Paul? Russell WestbrookPerhaps a Lonzo Ball reunion is in order?

Los Angeles has limited trade assets, but they could be able to pull something off if one team falls in love with promising young guard Talen Horton-Tucker

The Lakers need a center, point guard and a new crop of wings to support their two superstars. The hard work is done by having two cornerstones, but the Lakers will have to make tons of shrewd moves this offseason if they hope to roster a capable supporting cast.

Other than Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the rest of the roster could be in flux.

2. Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks are set to return Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday — their three most important players by far. 

Sturdy starting center Brook Lopez is also expected to return, as well as Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo. While DiVincenzo was injured for all but three games this postseason, he’s a tenacious defender who still has room to grow on offense. Connaughton cemented himself as an athletic, reliable role player.

But if the Bucks hope to repeat, they'll need to make some improvements. They were too light on shooting, knocking down just 32% from deep this postseason. Obviously, that ended up not mattering since they won, but it will likely be a bigger factor next season as teams try to clog the paint and force Milwaukee to beat them from long range.

Antetokounmpo is still a freight train going to the basket, while Middleton can score in tight spaces thanks to his pristine fadeaway game. Holiday is also comfortable hoisting unconventional shots from weird angles. But to make their lives easier, the Bucks must add shooting reinforcements.

Keep in mind, though, that the Greek Freak is only 26. It’s entirely possible he can keep getting better, and he has a lot of room for improvement in the shooting department. He shot a miraculous 17-19 from the line in Game 6, which was promising. If he becomes at least a league-average shooter from the midrange, that will raise Milwaukee’s ceiling even more.

1. Brooklyn Nets

The Nets are set to enter next season as perhaps the most talented offensive unit ever assembled. They took the eventual champion Bucks to seven games despite a sidelined Kyrie Irving and James Harden practically playing on one leg.

Kevin Durant was phenomenal, averaging 35/10/5 against Milwaukee. Once Harden and Irving return to their former selves, the Nets are going to be virtually impossible to stop on offense. Having Joe Harris, who struggled in the postseason but is still an incredible floor spacer, is a cherry on top. But four players aren’t enough, and the Nets are likely to lose Spencer Dinwiddie and Blake Griffin in free agency.

Since Brooklyn is up against the luxury tax, they have limited ways they can replace players. Other than DeAndre Jordan and the core four, the only other guaranteed players under contract next season are Landry Shamet and Nicolas Claxton.

Both Shamet and Claxton are young, capable players who showed plenty of promise, and they’ll probably have even bigger roles next season. As with most NBA Finals contenders in a cool market, there will be a handful of quality players willing to sign for less money for the chance to win a championship.

Brooklyn needs to focus on getting through next regular season unscathed. This past postseason was riddled with injuries to key players. Ultimately, the last two teams avoided a major injury to one of their best players. If the Nets are fully healthy by next playoffs, they’re going to be quite the matchup to handle. 

When their Big Three shared the floor this postseason, Brooklyn scored 135 points per 100 possessions, which is a record-shattering number. Their one weakness is poor defense, but that doesn’t matter quite as much when they’ll likely score more than their opponent anyway.

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration