2021 was easily the most enjoyable year of basketball I’ve followed since officially becoming an NBA agnostic upon Tim Duncan’s retirement in 2016.
I’m an old-school guy and I absolutely hated the superteam trend that dominated the last decade. I’d rather watch superstars beat the crap out of each other—like the slobberknocker we saw in the East semis between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant—than have them gang up on a bunch of semi-stars.
I also hated the Orlando bubble, which was nothing more than a glorified pickup tournament with no fans and no pressure. The return of home-and-away games last year was very refreshing, particularly having the crowd back in the playoffs. Now, that’s real NBA basketball.
As cheesy as it sounds, I guess you can say that 2021 rekindled my love for the game. It also means that I’ve been quite opinionated the last 12 months. A sports fan can never just be a “fan” the way fans of Broadway musicals are. We can’t just appreciate what we’re watching because sports is not the arts. We’re hardwired to have an opinion on everything because sports is, at its core, founded on competition and tribalism.
For this week’s column, allow me to look back at some of the most seemingly outrageous things I’ve said over the course of the past year. One aged badly, but that wouldn’t stop me from saying a couple of more to start 2022. Happy New Year!
1. Retrospect: “The Bucks lost the title in November 2020 when they traded for Jrue Holiday instead of Chris Paul”
Oof! The Bucks not only won the title, but Holiday played a key role in their title run and outplayed CP3 in three of the last four Finals games. If it was a true or false question, I’d just take an L, but sports opinions are by their nature essay types so indulge me as I try to squeeze out some partial points.
First, the Suns were two wins away from the statement coming true! The way CP3 dominated the first two games of the Finals made it at least seem half-true. Second, Holiday had an up-and-down postseason, so while the Bucks didn’t lose the title, they could have won it more comfortably if they had CP3—the Nets series wouldn’t have gone 7 games if CP3 was running the point.
But it is what it is and Holiday played great defense on Paul, so hats off to Jrue. I will not slander you again.
2. Retrospect: “Cade Cunningham is Evan Turner 2.0”
Before the draft, I told some of my friends that Cade Cunningham is closer to Evan Turner than he is to Luka Doncic. Here’s the receipt:
Cunningham is averaging 15.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 5.2 assists so far. Right around the average of Turner’s two best seasons.
Cunningham will still develop so he’ll probably end up eclipsing Turner’s best numbers after a couple of seasons, but the main point I was trying to make is that the pre-draft Luka comparisons were downright silly.
3. Retrospect: “The 2021-22 Lakers are the 2012-13 Lakers redux”
After 37 games, the 2021-22 Lakers are 18-19, two games better than the 2012-13 “superteam” featuring Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, and Pau Gasol (16-21). Well within the margin of error.
We can point to several similarities, like an aging roster that didn’t quite fit, poor defense, but this was largely just based on gut feel. As a fan, I must say that both teams have given me so much joy.
4. Prediction: “The Warriors will not win the title this year”
The league-best Warriors will either lose in the WCF or the Finals. Their overreliance on Steph Curry will hurt them in the playoffs. Steph is taking an unhealthy amount of threes per game—13.5 compared to 11.2 during his transcendent 2016 season—and he continues to convert at a career-low rate (discounting his lost 2019-20 season).
I’ve already talked about Steve Kerr’s reluctance to run more plays for Andrew Wiggins, and I think it’s too big an ask to expect Klay Thompson to be ‘Game 6 Klay’ as soon as the postseason hits.
The Warriors went 15-5 to close out last season but once opposing defenses got tighter in the play-in tournament and Steph didn’t have the hot hand, they summarily lost to the Lakers and Grizzlies. Their defense should see them cruise through the first two rounds this time around but I’m not sure if I’ll take this Warriors team over the Suns, Bucks or Nets in a seven-game series… unless Kerr listens to my unsolicited advice.
5. Prediction: “The LeBron-AD Lakers will not win another NBA title”
Just doubling down on No. 3 above. The 2012-13 Lakers got swept in the first round by the Spurs, and this year’s Lakers will also get the broom, either straight or gentleman’s. With injuries decimating both Denver and the Clippers, and Dallas just being weirdly bad (with and without Doncic), the Lakers may have a decent shot at avoiding the play-ins altogether. But they’ll be nothing but cannon-fodder for the big boys in round 1.
Moving forward, LeBron James is already 37 years old, Anthony Davis can’t stay healthy, and Russell Westbrook’s massive contract is on the books through 2023. If it wasn’t clear then, it should be now: the bubble was an aberration. The only reason LeBron and AD avoided significant injury time was due to the near 5-month midseason break which prevented their bodies from breaking down in time for the playoffs. After the NBA ratings plummeted during the Orlando
Summer League bubble, you can bet that Adam Silver will not be giving LeBron and the Lakers another respite.
Listen, I hate quoting Stephen A. Smith, but he’s not wrong about this one:
6. Prediction: “Ben Simmons will get traded to a lottery-bound Western Conference team before the February trade deadline”
Best bet is to the Kings or Blazers, but I’m keeping my options open for a curveball. The pressure continues to mount on Daryl Morey as the trade deadline approaches because Philly fans are growing impatient. It should be clear by now that Simmons has no intention of playing another game for the Sixers, and they are a borderline playoff team without him. Is it really worth wasting this year—a year of Joel Embiid’s prime—to prove a point? What would Simmons’s trade value even be if he sits out an entire year without playing NBA basketball?
It seems that Morey has no intention of trading Simmons to an Eastern Conference contender, which is perhaps the primary reason why the most sensible Simmons-for-Kyrie swap couldn’t get any traction. Morey’s not sending him to his preferred destination in L.A. either. So my best guess is that Morey gives Simmons a big eff-you out the door and ships him to a miserable franchise out West; if it’s not Sacramento or Portland, Morey would just get his All-Star caliber player via a third team.
7. Throwback video of the week
New Year’s Eve, 2001. Just two days after dropping 51 points on the Charlotte Hornets, a 38-year-old Michael Jordan went for 45 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals in a win against the eventual Eastern Conference champs.