NBA 2021/22: New Year, New Expectations

With the calendar flicking over to 2022 and the NBA All-Star game now only a month away, we've hit what is roughly the halfway point of the regular season. 

For the most part, teams are what they are by this point. Early-season anomalies have corrected themselves and slow starters have caught up to where they should be.

For others, expectations have changed. Whether it's for better or worse, some teams have deviated away from what most anticipated before the season tipped off.

With a new year comes new expectations. It doesn't need to end with a championship for all of these teams, but the second half of the season can lay the foundations for lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy in the not too distant future.

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Memphis Grizzlies

The Memphis Grizzlies tipped off the 2021-22 NBA season at 0.7% to win the championship and in the 'Fun, but not great' portion of the preview. While their jump in the Stats Insider Futures model to 2.5% doesn't suggest a massive improvement, it's safe to say that the Grizzlies are fun and, in fact, great.

Injuries, inexperience and the unknown made it difficult to predict such good things for the Grizzlies in October, but having seen what we have over the last 43 games (29-14), it's more difficult to imagine we didn't all see this coming. 

Winners of ten games on the bounce, the Grizzlies are 4th in the Western Conference and all but a lock for the playoffs. Their experience after sneaking into the playoffs last season will help moving forward and the improvements of their core group sets the Grizzlies up to make a splash in the first round.

Ja Morant is a bonafide superstar. His athleticism left jaws on the floor when he entered the league. We've grown accustomed to it now but defences can't stop it. First-quarter or with the game on the line, Morant can reach into his bag of tricks and find a bucket in any fashion.

The 22-year-old is averaging a career-high 24.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game. He's undoubtedly the leader of the group and the catalyst to their fifth-ranked offence scoring 113.1 points per 100 possessions. However, Morant is surrounded by a competent and improving supporting cast this season. 

Desmond Bane - selected 30th overall in the 2020 NBA Draft - has upped his production from 9.2 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists in his rookie year to 17.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 42.7% from beyond the arc. Dillon Brooks has been hampered by injury but is again proving to be a reliable scorer when he does manage to stay on the court.

Steven Adams is always going to offer toughness down low while Jaren Jackson Jr. is starting to provide the Grizzlies with a scoring touch beside the big Kiwi. Jackson Jr. has had his moments throughout the season but is only recently putting consistent performances together to average 18.6 points, eight rebounds and a whopping 3.2 blocks per game across his last five.

Memphis has a strong core group. Championship contenders tend to have two of the best 20 players in the league on the roster. Morant is one of them. Can Jackson Jr. begin to claw his way into that conversation?

Once considered fringe playoff contenders that may add some playoff experience to the playing group this season, the Grizzlies are now in a position to shake things up this off-season and put themselves into the 2022-23 championship conversation.

Chicago Bulls

It’s 2022 and a season after the Chicago Bulls finished 11th in the Eastern Conference with a 31-41 record. They’re now 27-11 to hold the number one seed and the third-best record in the league.

It has been quite the turnaround for a franchise that had grown accustomed to failing to live up to expectations and constantly being on the brink of yet another rebuild. Remarkably, it took the worst signing of the offseason to trigger the rise.

DeMar DeRozan has been simply outstanding this season. He is the experienced head and reliable closer the Bulls have lacked in recent years. He’s the backcourt partner Zach LaVine has been without and desperately needed.

DeRozan is in the MVP conversation averaging 26.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game in 34.9 minutes of action. Meanwhile, LaVine is putting up 25.7 points, five rebounds and 4.2 assists per game in the same amount of time. The pair are working in tandem to be one of the best duos in the league with the likes of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso making for ideal compliments. 

The Bulls play with the third-best offence in the NBA scoring 113.4 points per 100 possessions. Remarkably, it's their best offensive output since at least 2003-04. The Bulls have featured in the top 10 offence only one other season since then (2011-12).

This has all been a long time coming for the Bulls. Still, to be this good so quickly has forced a reevaluation of their goals for this season. Making the playoffs seemed an achievable goal despite just a 1.5% chance of winning the championship in October. Now there is talk of a potential run to the NBA Finals. There is a bit of the 2020-21 Phoenix Suns about this Bulls outfit. A similar stroke of injury luck could be enough to propel the Bulls into an unexpected Finals appearance. At 2.4% to win it, they're still not quite a firm feature of the championship conversation, but as we know, a lot can change in half a season.

Cleveland Cavaliers

If anybody tells you they saw this level of play coming out of the Cleveland Cavaliers, they're a liar.

The Cavaliers haven't won more than 22 games in a season since losing the 2017-18 NBA Finals before waving goodbye to LeBron James for a second time. At 23-18 for 6th in the Eastern Conference and with Collin Sexton managing only 11 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury, the Cavaliers are in the most exciting of positions for an NBA fan base: An encouraging upward trajectory with few expectations.

There's a world where Sexton's injury can be spun into a positive. It has put pressure on Darius Garland to take over and he has responded with 19.4 points and 7.3 assists per game. Evan Mobley is a Rookie of the Year favourite and his partnership with Jarrett Allen in the frontcourt has helped the Cavaliers improve on their 25th-ranked defence in 2020-21 to be third in the league allowing just 105.9 points per 100 possessions. It's on the defensive end that the Cavaliers have made their leap, but it's with the ball where they hold the most potential.

Sexton's return and developing combination with Garland is one thing. Mobley's unicorn-like ability to handle, pass and score with the ball is scary already. Lauri Markkanen has finally fallen into a role he can complete while Kevin Love has settled for his spot on the bench.

Ricky Rubio's ACL injury is a massive concern, though. It's the spanner that could undo what has been a promising season on paper to date. However, while the new expectations for playoff basketball remain, the development of Garland, Mobley, Allen, Markkanen and Isaac Okoro is the focus. 

Los Angeles Lakers

The expectations for a LeBron James led team rarely change - it's always about championships. Even while sitting at 7th in the Western Conference with a disappointing 21-20 record, the expectations in La La Land are for the purple and gold to be a relevant piece to the playoff puzzle at the very least.

But can we expect THIS group to be the relevant team? The one with Russell Westbrook occupying $44 million in the salary cap and providing just a touch over the value of an average NBA player? 

Westbrook isn't the only issue the Lakers are facing right now. LeBron James is being forced to play like he's 27 after just turning 37, Anthony Davis is injured, Kendrick Nunn is yet to play at all, their depth is questionable, the defence ranks 18th in the league and the offence is even worse. It would be unfair to lump all of the blame onto Westbrook who everybody with eyes and access to NBA analytics knew was unlikely to work out at the Lakers.

Still, it's clear - again to the people with eyes and access to NBA analytics - that he's unlikely to be part of the solution. The best-case scenario for the Westbrook deal was for his energy to make up for injuries and allow James and Davis to spend time off the floor without the record taking a battering. That hasn't been the case and there isn't a lot to suggest a James/Davis/Westbrook trio is going to work in the playoffs either.

Having three superstar names generates a certain level of championship expectation though it remains to be seen whether or not Westbrook is one of them after the trade deadline passes.

Golden State Warriors

"Steph Curry and Draymond Green will keep the Warriors above water until Klay Thompson returns. That may not be until early 2022, and it's not until then that we will know the ceiling of this team. Steph, though..." - NBA 2021/22 Projections

Steph Curry and Draymond Green did more than keep the Golden State Warriors above water while waiting for Klay Thompson to return.

Curry is playing at an MVP level to average 26.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game. He's in the top ten in the league in win shares (5.1), offensive box plus/minus (6.1), box plus/minus (7.0) and value over replacement (2.9). Despite the approach of his 34th birthday, Curry still has those periods which make you say "Oh god, he's going to score 100 points."

Meanwhile, Green is quarterbacking the best defence in the NBA. He's second in defensive win shares (2.4) and first in defensive box plus/minus (4.7) to be a leading contender for the Defensive Player of the Year award. 

The Warriors have been somewhat reliant on Curry shooting the lights out to start the season. While a promising supporting cast, they've lacked a consistent second scorer to pick up the slack when their superstar point guard is struggling. 

Welcome back, Klay Thompson.

He's going to be afforded some time to get back to his best following 941 days sitting in the stands. However, Golden State's patience with getting him back out onto the floor should see him start producing at a high level sooner rather than later. We've already seen throughout his first two games that the willingness to get shots up quickly and often is still there along with more time spent on the ball than we're accustomed to seeing. 

Add Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Otto Porter Jr., James Wiseman and Andre Iguodala behind two potential award winners and a fit and firing Thompson, and we've got a championship or bust season.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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