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2021-2022 NBA season: Preseason power rankings

(AP Photo / Ashley Landis)

The NBA is finally back on track after two regular seasons that were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A lot has changed over the course of those two seasons, both in the real world and from a basketball perspective.

COVID-19 vaccines are a common part of daily conversations, and mask-wearing went from being a new concept to becoming a part of everyday life.

Meanwhile, the landscape of the NBA has changed at a rapid pace as teams deal with the impacts of trade requests, vaccine mandates, and everything in between.

Kyrie Irving will likely never play for the Brooklyn Nets again, unless he changes his stance on COVID-19 vaccines. Ben Simmons will likely never suit up for the Philadelphia 76ers again, unless he changes his own stance on his fit with the team.

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Russell Westbrook has worn three different uniforms since the start of the pandemic, and now finds himself as part of a Big Three with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in Los Angeles.

The Milwaukee Bucks emerged as a top-tier NBA franchise, beating the up-and-coming Phoenix Suns in the 2021 NBA Finals to solidify their star status.

All of that happened in the span of a year and a half, which adds to the excitement and curiosity about what could occur throughout the 2021-2022 regular season.

Even with so much up in the air, we took a chance and decided to rank the top 10 teams in the NBA before the league’s 2021-2022 campaign tips off.

10. Philadelphia 76ers

If Ben Simmons was guaranteed to be in the lineup, the Philadelphia 76ers would have a legitimate chance at finishing the 2021-2022 season towards the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

Without Simmons, the Sixers seem like less of a threat.

Joel Embiid has emerged as a dominant force in the NBA over the last few years, and has proven on numerous occasions that he can compete when Simmons misses time.

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But, the big man’s talent can only take the team so far in a league (and conference) with such parity. When his body begins to wear down towards the end of the year as a result of increased playing time, it appears as if he won’t have any depth around him to pick up the slack.

When you’re battling Kevin Durant and James Harden on the Brooklyn Nets, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton on the Milwaukee Bucks, or Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on the Boston Celtics, you need all of the help you can get.

Unfortunately, Embiid’s 76ers just don’t have that to make a deep run this season.

9. Golden State Warriors

If Klay Thompson can return to form in 2021 after tearing his ACL in 2019 and injuring his Achilles in 2020, the Golden State Warriors could be a sneaky threat in the Western Conference this season.

Thompson’s last in-game action came during the 2019 NBA Finals against the Toronto Raptors, and he’s been forced to work in recovery mode ever since. Meanwhile, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, and the rest of the Warriors have tried their best to contend in a loaded Western Conference.

Without Thompson, the Warriors went from being considered a dynasty to almost becoming an afterthought in the West. Now, they enter the 2021-2022 season with minimal expectations, but loads of potential.

Second-year big man James Wiseman impressed at times throughout his rookie campaign last year, but he’ll have to show that he can remain consistent in a vital role in the Warriors lineup.

Elsewhere, youngster Jordan Poole will look to continue his rapid maturation, which helped fill the hole created by Thompson’s absence in 2020.

There are a lot of tools in the lineup to take the pressure off Curry and create opportunities on the perimeter this year, which is where the Warriors will do most of their damage.

If everything goes smoothly from a health standpoint, don’t be surprised if you see the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals come next summer.

8. Dallas Mavericks

Managing frustration is going to be the name of the game for the Dallas Mavericks this season.

The talent is there in the form of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, but each of the franchise’s biggest stars have had issues with the Mavericks in recent seasons.

Doncic’s anger was visible during close games throughout the 2020-2021 season, and Porzingis reportedly didn’t see eye-to-eye with former Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle.

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With new head coach Jason Kidd at the helm, the Mavericks will look to get everyone on the same page in order to make a run in the Western Conference this year.

The lineup doesn’t match up all that well against well-rounded teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns, or Utah Jazz, but Doncic’s talent is undeniable.

The Mavericks will be in the playoffs when April rolls around, but the real question is how far they will be able to go when putting the weight on Doncic and Porzingis’ shoulders.

7. Miami Heat

Similar to the Golden State Warriors, the Miami Heat are a sleeper team in their conference heading into the 2021-2022 season.

Just a calendar year removed from an appearance in the 2020 NBA Finals, the Heat have the weapons in place to repeat their Cinderella story this season.

The franchise added Kyle Lowry to a roster that already included Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and more, and team chemistry has been off the charts in recent seasons.

Fatigue seemingly got in the way last year, which made sense after the league started the 2020-2021 season so close to the finale of the 2020 NBA Finals. But, there won’t be any excuses for the Heat to use as this year rolls along.

With so much depth, offensive prowess, and defensive savvy, this 2021-2022 Heat roster has all of the weapons to take down a threat like the Milwaukee Bucks or Brooklyn Nets.

If there’s ever a time for Miami to get back on top in the East, it’s now.

6. Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets find themselves in a similar situation as the Philadelphia 76ers heading into a new regular season.

While the Sixers deal with question marks surrounding Ben Simmons, the Nets have their own uncertainties about Kyrie Irving’s future.

Irving’s refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine makes him ineligible to play in the Nets’ home games this season, and the franchise upped the ante when it announced that Irving couldn’t practice with the team, either.

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If Irving changes course on the vaccine, a la Andrew Wiggins with the Warriors, the Nets will be just fine in the East. For now, we have to operate as if he’ll be done with the Nets for the time being.

Kevin Durant and James Harden certainly aren’t chopped liver, however, and that dynamic duo is enough to take down a majority of the rosters around the league.

But, putting them up against well-rounded, defensive-minded teams within, and outside of, their conference is going to be tough without Irving leading the offense.

They’re still an Eastern Conference Finals contender heading into the new year, but don’t expect the Nets to be hoisting any trophies when the weather gets warmer in Brooklyn.

5. Denver Nuggets

Had Jamal Murray not torn his ACL in April, we would be seriously considering the Denver Nuggets as an NBA Finals-worthy team for the 2021-2022 season.

The Nuggets have the reigning league MVP on their roster with Nikola Jokic, and the franchise has a ton of depth spread around the court to put up major numbers offensively.

Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon each got paid ahead of the new season, so there won’t be any issues there.

Murray should (ideally) be back at some point late in the season as he recovers from his injury, and could be back in the fray on a full-time basis when the postseason rolls around.

The team is loaded, and proved last year that they could still do some damage in the playoffs without Murray in the lineup.

With a full summer to plan for the 2021-2022 season, the Nuggets are a top-five team in the NBA.

4. Utah Jazz

Having the Utah Jazz as the fourth-ranked team in the league goes to show you just how deep the Western Conference truly is heading into the 2021-2022 season.

The Jazz took home the best record in the league last season with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert at the helm, but lost to the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Semifinals.

The earlier-than-expected exit left a sour taste in the mouths of players and fans alike, and many wondered if the team would be able to replicate their regular-season success a year later as their rivals continued to improve.

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The Jazz are bringing back a majority of their key contributors for the 2021-2022 schedule, and look like they will still be a top-tier threat in the West this season. But, there are definitely a few lineups that put Utah’s to shame this year.

They will still be a contender with loads of potential, but don’t expect the Jazz to put up a Western Conference-leading win total this season.

3. Phoenix Suns

The Phoenix Suns shocked the majority of basketball fans with their run to the 2021 NBA Finals, but those inside the organization weren’t surprised at all.

The team didn’t lose a game inside the league’s bubble during the COVID-19-impacted summer of 2020, and carried that momentum right into the 2020-2021 season.

Chris Paul, Devin Booker, DeAndre Ayton and company were almost unstoppable throughout the year, and head coach Monty Williams’ presence in the locker room and on the sidelines was crucial.

All of the pieces are there for this Suns squad, and they made sure that most of their players would be happy by locking Mikal Bridges down with an extension in the days leading up to their season opener.

Ayton could become disgruntled as his contract negotiations continue, and the franchise may have to deal with a trade request if they can’t work something out as the year progresses.

But, if the organization can keep its core intact and maintain the atmosphere that has built up since the summer of 2020, the Suns could easily find themselves in the Western Conference Finals for the second year in a row.

2. Milwaukee Bucks

The reigning league champs are projected to repeat as Eastern Conference champions in our preseason power rankings, and have the potential to pull off the repeat if the Eastern Conference’s landscape stays the same.

Giannis Antetokounmpo played like the superstar that he is throughout the 2021 playoffs, putting up historic numbers to lead the Bucks to the franchise’s first title since 1971.

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Khris Middleton emerged as a major playmaker throughout the postseason, picking up the slack in the moments where Antetokounmpo’s injuries and fatigue kicked in.

Jrue Holiday was an unexpected hero throughout the postseason, and will still be a major part of the lineup as the 2021-2022 season kicks off.

There isn’t much else to say when it comes to the Bucks, and their presence in the No. 2 spot isn’t really a knock on them, but rather a sign of respect for the top squad on the list.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

When you already have LeBron James and Anthony Davis in your lineup and you add Russell Westbrook to the mix, you’re going to be considered the favorite to win the NBA Finals.

Had the Los Angeles Lakers stayed healthy throughout the COVID-19-impacted 2020-2021 season, the franchise had a good chance at a repeat after winning the 2020 NBA Finals.

Instead of sticking with an already star-studded lineup for their 2021-2022 campaign, they went out and added more weapons to their arsenal.

They added Westbrook, brought back Rajon Rondo, and signed Carmelo Anthony to add some depth.

Five years ago, this lineup would’ve seemed impossible. In 2021, it’s a reality.

Yes, you can make fun of them for their combined age. Yes, you can consider some of the players to be shells of their former selves. But, the talent is certainly there for the Lakers to work with, and there’s loads of postseason experience in the locker room that will help come April and May.

Time will tell how they match up with the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz in their own conference, or the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets on the other side of the aisle.

But, for now, you have to consider the Lakers as the top team in the NBA heading into the 2021-2022 regular season.

Agree with our power rankings ahead of the 2021-2022 NBA season? Let us know by following @SOTSports on Twitter or by liking our Facebook page!

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