The start of the 2021 NBA season is now upon us. Assuming health, which is not a given for a team built around aging superstars, the Brooklyn Nets appear to be the title favorites for the 2021-2022 season. Because we’ve yet to see an extended run with all three Brooklyn stars on the court together, they appear to be out of sight and out of mind for most NBA fans. That has helped make this upcoming season appear to be more wide open than any in recent memory. With so much uncertainty, let’s take a look at the 5 most important storylines as we head into what could prove to be a very exciting 2021 NBA Season.
What will happen to Ben Simmons
Outside of certain players’ willingness to take the vaccine for Covid-19, the talk of the offseason has been Ben Simmons. His play in the postseason was summarized by a particular play in which Simmons passed up a wide-open dunk in favor of playing hot potato with the ball and passing it to a covered teammate that was subsequently fouled and missed one of the two free throws. It was Joel Embiid’s body language in the aftermath of the play and his comments coupled with those of Doc Rivers that led to where we are now.
The poor fit between Simmons and Embiid is a tale as old as time. Both players were better off without each other because both players needed to occupy the same space on the floor in order to be effective. Brett Brown and Doc Rivers tried everything to improve the on-court chemistry between the two. At one point, Embiid spent more time behind the 3 point line in order to open up space for Simmons down low. Embiid is an ok shooter but his shooting splits from deep made that strategy untenable. After moving on from Jimmy Butler, the Sixers tried making Simmons the team’s primary ball-handler but that experiment was also short-lived. So why didn’t the Sixer make a move sooner? Why did they wait so long to make a move we all knew was inevitable?
For years, everyone wondered if Joel Embiid could ever stay healthy. In fact, he was the only player with injury protections written into his max contract. The thinking was, if Embiid suffers yet another catastrophic injury, the team would be able to pivot to Ben Simmons. Simmons was treated like Embiid insurance. Trading Simmons off for spare parts that fit better around Embiid would be removing the safety net. The Sixers were simply not comfortable putting all of their eggs in the Joel Embiid basket. Since then, Embiid hasn’t necessarily been the poster boy for health but he has shown he can be the best player on a championship team.
For Embiid and the Sixers, the time is now. The team hired Darryl Morey because they knew he would be well equipped to handle the current situation. It’s no secret Morey tried to trade Simmons for James Harden and frankly who wouldn’t. Were Simmons able to put his ego to the side he would understand that Harden is the superior player and would have made the Sixers instant title contenders. Whether his feelings about the all but certain trade affected his on-court play, we’ll never know. What we do know is that his performance against the Hawks all but sealed his fate. The time to move on from Simmons is now.
When the offseason began, the supposed asking price for Simmons was leaked to the press. The collective NBA world laughed at Darryl Morey believing he lacked self-awareness and was overvaluing his much-maligned player. The truth is that Morey was never going to sell low on Simmons. He wasn’t asking for what he believed Simmons was worth, he was asking for what he believed would land him a star in a subsequent trade. With no attachment to the player, Simmons was simply the means to an end. Morey knew Simmons represented the best chance at landing a superstar to play alongside Embiid. He was never going to settle for a package involving CJ McCollum when the player he truly coveted was Damian Lillard.
What unfolded over the past couple of months was a misguided attempt by Simmons and Rich Paul to generate leverage. Because of his contract status and poor play, Simmons was never going to have the power to dictate his next destination that players like Anthony Davis and James Harden could. Simmons and Klutch essentially told Darryl Morey they quit seconds after being told that they were being fired. It was a terrible strategy from the start and it was never going to work. Recently, they decided to up the ante by claiming Simmons would be willing to sit out the entire season and would never play for the Sixers again. Once again, that was a poor choice.
Everyone in the NBA and the league offices is keeping an eye on the situation in Philadelphia. If Simmons is able to force his way out of town with that many years left on his contract, it would set a dangerous precedent. It would essentially invalidate contracts for stars and they would cease to matter. The league needs Simmons to pay a pound of flesh. Even if Morey and the Sixers wanted to, the league would never allow them to return the fine money back to Simmons. If Simmons was truly set on sitting out for an extended period of time, it was going to cost him.
That leads us to where we are now.
The trade market for Simmons never materialized in a meaningful way and he recently shocked the 76ers by flying in and showing up at the team facilities. For better or worse, the Sixers and Simmons need each other. At his current value, no team has been willing to part with the type of win-now pieces Darryl Morey would need to pull the trigger. A package for picks doesn’t help the Sixers because there isn’t a star available at the moment to trade those picks for. The only thing that can help the situation is time. Time for either Lillard or Beal to finally ask out of their current situation or time for Simmons to increase his trade value with his on-court play. Rest assured, neither side wants Simmons to finish the season as a 76er but for now, a temporary reconciliation was the only path forward in order to for both sides to get what they want in the 2021 NBA season.
Zach LaVine with the THROW DOWN ? pic.twitter.com/0nPLeNsw3c
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) July 13, 2021
What is going to happen in Chicago?
The Bulls had two options heading into the offseason. Option A would be to use their available cap space to renegotiate and extend Zach LaVine’s contract. LaVine is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the 2021 NBA Season. That move would have allowed the Bulls to keep him in Chicago on a market contract. It would, however, have prevented the Bulls from making significant changes to the roster around Lavine. They ultimately decided to go with option B. Option B involved using the cap space and their available assets to continue to build the team around LaVine in the 2021 NBA season and hope it would be enough to convince him to resign next offseason.
The first 3 months of next season may very well shape what this team looks like for the foreseeable future. If the Bulls play well early on and show immediate promise, it buys them time and allows them to kick the can down the road. If the team underperforms, LaVine may be the latest star to make a trade request. Any team trading for LaVine would inherit his full bird rights and have the ability to sign him to his max. Any team that believes LaVine is the missing piece could decide to trade for him rather than trying to secure his services in free agency. The Bulls have effectively gone all-in for this current roster. If Lavine is convinced it isn’t good enough to contend, expect the rumblings and rumors to pick up steam as the trade deadline approaches. If Simmons isn’t moved by then, a Simmons for LaVine deal makes a ton of sense for both sides.
Are the Warriors back?
There has been a ton of buzz regarding the Warriors heading into the 2021 NBA Season. They added two lottery picks in Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. They also signed veterans Nemanja Bjelica and Otto Porter Jr. and brought back a familiar face in Andre Iguodala. Bjelica and Porter Jr. were excellent and cheap signings that could provide them with valuable depth. The elephant in the room, however, is how will Klay Thompson look as he returns from a torn achilles heel. Kuminga, Moody, and Wiseman will be key contributors to the next great Warriors team. In the short term, none of them appear to be ready to help maximize what is left of Stephen Curry’s prime. That puts the fortunes of this year’s team on the back of Klay Thompson.
Will he look like the great 3 and D player of years past? If he isn’t able to lock down the opponent’s best player, is his shooting alone enough to catapult this Warriors team into contender status? Kevin Durant’s spectacular return from a similar injury has allowed fans to believe he will be the Klay Thompson of old. The difference is that Durant rehabbed for 18 months after tearing his achilles tendon. Thompson will be making his return much sooner than that. Even at full strength, Thompson alone may not be enough to make the Warriors a contender. If he is a shell of his former self, the Warriors will be in a difficult situation. They owe it to Curry to maximize the present. If Kuminga and Moody play well and have decent trade value around the league, the Warriors may need to trade away their young core in order to do so.
Are the Lakers better?
At first glance, it appears to be a ludicrous question. Of course, the Lakers are better, they added a former MVP in Russell Westbrook. They have a Big 3 now. Or do they? There are ways in which the addition of Westbrook could be a slam dunk. There are also many more ways in which this could fail. First, let’s establish that the true test for this experiment will come during the playoffs. Regular season basketball and playoff basketball are almost two completely different sports at this point. Westbrook will give the Lakers a safety net during the regular season and allow them to survive minor injuries to Lebron James and/or Anthony Davis. He will put up his usual counting stats and Lebron will be happy to hand the reins of the offense over to Westbrook.
The former MVP point guard is effective with the ball in his hands. Without it, he has never been a good cutter, and opposing defenses simply ignore him at the 3 point line. Putting the ball in Westbrook’s hands means the Lakers are going away from the Lebron/AD pick and roll which has made them unguardable at times. Those pick and rolls relied on spacing provided by KCP’s shooting. Now, one struggles to find where the reliable 3 point shooting will come from. Talen Horton-Tucker is a nice player but shooting isn’t his strong suit and the same can be said about Kendrick Nunn. Wayne Ellington is a career 40% 3 point shooter but there is a reason he has struggled to find a home in a league starved for outside shooting. Malik Monk could be the x-factor for his team. Monk showed flashes at times last season but not enough to keep the Hornets from letting him walk. The Lakers are betting those flashes are an indication he has taken a leap as a player. If they’re wrong, the geometry on the court will get ugly in a hurry.
In a vacuum, Westbrook is a much better player than Buddy Hield. However, he may not be the better player for this version of the Lakers. Hield would have set the net on fire with the open looks a Lebron/AD pick and roll provide. Those shots look a lot different if Trevor Ariza is the one taking them. We know how this is going to go, the Lakers are going to run roughshod over most teams during the regular season and pundits will be singing the praises of General Manager Rob Pelinka. Those lauding Pelinka will quickly change their tune when this team underperforms and loses in the second round of the playoffs after the 2021 NBA season. The chances of that happening are a lot higher than you think.
Are the Hawks the next great team?
For years, it was rumored that any team looking to trade its star would have to place a call to the Boston Celtics. They were armed with a treasure chest of draft capital and young talent. For a number of reasons, the Celtics never pulled the trigger on such a trade and have instead opted to build around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Are the Hawks taking the same path as the Celtics? They may not have an abundance of draft picks to offer, but they do have a collection of young players still on their rookie contracts. John Collins recently signed a $125 million contract but is only 23 and would be an ideal matching salary in a trade for a star. The Hawks also have Kevin Huerter, Sharife Cooper, De’Andre Hunter, Jalen Johnson, Onyeka Okongwu, and Cam Reddish on rookie-scale contracts.
The Hawks cannot possibly extend all of these players following the 2021 NBA Season. No one should have been surprised that Cam Reddish was floated as a possible trade candidate in the days leading up to the draft. There aren’t enough minutes to go around on the team. Expect Atlanta to consolidate their assets and look to bring in a true star to play alongside Trae Young. Bradley Beal would make a ton of sense for this team. Zach LaVine would also make a ton of sense for this team. If the situation in New Orleans reaches a boiling point, Zion Williamson would look fantastic next to Clint Capela and Trae Young. Many presume Karl Anthony-Towns will soon grow weary of all the losing and he, too, would work well alongside a true defensive anchor like Capela due to his outside shooting. Outside of Damian Lillard, expect to hear the Hawks mentioned as a potential trade partner for the next team forced to trade away an unhappy star.
Editor’s Note: A small correction was edited of the correct start of the NBA season.