Eight (almost) fearless predictions!

Want to know exactly what will happen during the NBA's 2021-22 season? You've come to the right place

It was just 91 days ago that Giannis Antetokounmpo was rumbling for 50 points, and somehow sinking 17 of his 19 free throws, in a Game 6 victory over Phoenix that clinched the Milwaukee Bucks’ first championship in 50 years.

On Tuesday night, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks will receive their championship rings and then play host to the Brooklyn Nets in the curtain-raiser to what the NBA has billed as its 75th anniversary season.

Starting the season in the only manner we know how at Stein Line HQ, here are eight (almost) fearless predictions from our crystal roundball to forecast what will happen in #thisleague over the next nine (or so) months:

Sixers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey will turn his gaze to Canada once he realizes that he can't trade Ben Simmons for Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal.

Of the teams that have been consistently linked to Simmons since Philadelphia's second-round flameout last season, Toronto stands out as the most intriguing suitor.

The draft compensation involved in any eventual Simmons trade figures to be a difference-making variable, but the Raptors have the base talent to outbid numerous teams (if they choose) when Philadelphia finally reaches the point that it concedes it is no longer tenable to hold out for a star on Lillard's or Beal's level. Rather than pursue a swap centered around Pascal Siakam, it is easier to see Philadelphia trying to push to acquire a rising star capable of replicating Simmons' versatility — namely OG Anunoby — who can be packaged with a playoff-tested veteran ballhandler to give the Sixers' backcourt a needed boost (Goran Dragić).

That’s not to say Toronto would be willing. Simmons' tumultuous first week back with the Sixers hasn’t exactly enhanced his punctured trade value and word is that Masai Ujiri, Morey’s Toronto counterpart, “loves” Anunoby, who is poised to take a major step in the post-Kyle Lowry era given the potential he has already flashed as a defender, playmaker and shooter. Surrendering Anunoby at this pivotal stage of his development might be too painful for the Raptors, even if they are tantalized by the opportunity to relaunch Simmons’ career. I’m just saying Morey will try.

The peace won't last in Portland.

Lillard does not want to be the bad guy. He does not want to ask the Trail Blazers to trade him to a team closer to championship contention after the two-way lovefest he has built with Portlanders over the past nine seasons.

Yet you can safely assume that Lillard likewise does not want to find himself scuffling for a play-in spot in the West, which is where the Blazers appear to be headed. I don't think Lillard has any interest in trying to force his way to Philadelphia in the swap of Morey's dreams for Simmons, but I do think his contentment level will quickly resurface as a constant storyline when the Blazers find themselves in the 7th-to-10th-place range in the West and struggling to extend a run of eight consecutive trips to the playoffs.

The recent acquisition of Larry Nance Jr. was sneaky good, but Chauncey Billups is a first-time head coach with a team that absolutely has to win now. Coaching really wasn't the Blazers' weak spot; Lillard and his trusty backcourt mate CJ McCollum have simply never had enough dependable size or depth around them. Portland will need pristine health and sustained excellence from Nance, Robert Covington and Norman Powell to muster the sort of defense that can move Lillard and Co. up the West ladder.

Beal, by contrast, will remind everyone that he could not be more entrenched in the nation’s capital.

Beal has until June 30 to sign a four-year contract extension worth nearly $182 million, or he can wait until the offseason to re-sign with the Wizards on a five-year deal worth in excess of $240 million. While the latter is the more likely outcome, all the signals emanating from Washington send the same message: Beal isn’t looking to leave. At all.

No team will win 60 games this season.

This is the first time since 2018-19 that teams will even have the chance to crack 60 wins after two consecutive pandemic-shortened seasons.

There is simply too much emphasis on load management and prioritizing the playoffs in the modern game, on top of the increasing parity in both conferences, to expect even the top teams to cross the 60 threshold.

Utah’s 52 wins led the league last season and equate to 59 wins in a full 82-game season, but no team on Earth should be less concerned with making regular-season statements than the Jazz. Other teams with 60-win potential like Brooklyn and Milwaukee also have much grander priorities.

The wise old coach, Gregg Popovich, will teach Las Vegas a lesson.

Those of you who like to study over/under win projections from Sin City will surely have noted that the Spurs are almost universally projected to win less than 30 games this season.

Scoff with me.

San Antonio is indeed facing the hard-to-fathom prospect of a third successive non-playoff season, after missing the postseason twice in a row for the first time in franchise history, but they are still the Spurs (to a degree) and this, at 72, is still Pop. That means he will get the absolute maximum effort and execution out of this group, which translates to at least 35 wins according to our internal abacus.

Popovich, remember, needs 26 wins to pass his dear friend Don Nelson and become the winningest coach in NBA history. I repeat: I am scoffing at the notion that the professional oddsmakers barely project him to get there.

The Nuggets (no misprint) will have a real shot to come out of the West.

As easy as it is to laser in on the Nets or the Bucks to fill half of an NBA Finals prediction, it's much more challenging on the left side of the conference divide.

The Lakers have the starriest roster but no shortage of concerns about the collective age, fit and volatility of a LeBron James/Anthony Davis/Russell Westbrook trio and a supporting cast starring Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo. The Suns, with an unhappy Deandre Ayton, are off to a rocky start in their quest to prove last season’s trip to the Finals wasn’t a fluke fueled largely by the West’s best overall health. The Clippers are unlikely to have Kawhi Leonard back in uniform until next season. The Warriors are impossible to judge until they get Klay Thompson back in uniform (as well as James Wiseman) to start gauging exactly how long he’ll need to re-establish his full Klay-ness. The Mavericks have only slightly shuffled around the mesmeric Luka Dončić (coaching staff aside) and will thus need a significant bounce-back season from Kristaps Porzingis to make any noise. As for the Jazz, they’re last season’s Bucks, meaning that Utah can’t even begin to hush the skeptics until the postseason.

The Nuggets, by contrast, have the reigning MVP to lean on for the first six months of the season, along with copious continuity and decent depth, and could be welcoming Jamal Murray back to rejoin Nikola Jokić, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon before the playoffs. After an offseason of uncharacteristic big spending from Denver on extensions for Porter and Gordon, those two should combine with Jokić to keep Denver in the mix for a top-four seed … with Murray’s return from a devastating knee injury potentially raising the Nuggets’ ceiling at the ideal time.

The hottest coaching seat in the Pacific Division won’t belong to Luke Walton. Try Frank Vogel.

Vogel finally received a long overdue contract extension in August, but it came a full season after he won a championship in his debut season in Lakerland and it reportedly tacked only one year onto his deal. That’s not a lot of long-term security for the coach of a championship-or-bust operation.

Walton also has just this season and next left on his contract, but simply steering the Kings to the West’s play-in round for seeds No. 7-10 would represent tangible progress for a franchise that has missed the playoffs for a league-record-tying 15 consecutive seasons. Vogel has to manage a slew of new marquee personalities, starting with Westbrook and Anthony, and he has to get the Lakers back to the NBA Finals, at the very least, for this season to be considered a success.

It is the league’s toughest coaching job.

This season's eventual champion is definitely coming from the Eastern Conference.

The Nets. Or the Bucks.

Those are the only two teams, on this scorecard, capable of winning the championship … barring landscape-altering injury absences that no one wants to think about in advance.

I like the Nets’ chances even without Kyrie Irving. I won't even attempt to pinpoint Irving's precise return in advance, or try to tell you whether he plans to get vaccinated, or retire, or whatever. Reason being: I probably like the Nets better without Irving and all the drama he brings — as long as Kevin Durant and James Harden can stay reasonably healthy.

I do believe that the Bucks, starting with Antetokounmpo but really the whole organization, have gone to a new place psyche-wise after last season's championship breakthrough. I just can't forget how close Brooklyn came to winning the teams' second-round showdown last season with an otherworldly Durant flanked only by half-a-Harden and an inferior bench to the current squad.

Just be advised that history, for what it's worth, is in the Bucks' favor. A title run for the Nets would mean that the NBA will have produced five different champions over the past five seasons. That hasn't happened since 1977-81.

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One of the beauties of Substack is the ability to make the writing so much more personal. I'm not sure I could have gotten away with frequent Travelogue posts at my previous stops, but the vibe I'm getting is that these (overly verbose) postcards are generally well-received.

Something also tells me that those who have read any of the previous entries discerned pretty quickly that I am a creature of habit (in the extreme) and, yes, infected with an incurable case of sports nerdity. Your latest window into that condition is shared here: Press-row placards from the first three NBA preseason games I attended this season.

That's right: I not only have saved every press credential issued for every sporting event I've covered since I started as a part-timer at The Orange County Register in 1987, but I'd guesstimate that I've also saved these seat-assignment cards from every NBA game I've attended going back at least 10 years. I know it's ridiculous overkill, but I rationalize the behavior by attributing the habit to my gratitude for being in this profession for so long. I never want to take the ability to go to games for a living for granted.

Please allow me to pretend that these placards are also collectors’ items, since they're the first for me as a Substacker as opposed to covering a game as a more traditional representative of The New York Times, ESPN or any of my past employers. League rules prohibit posting pictures of credentials, so I went with the placards for this week's prime Travelogue artwork.

A few more highlights from the rest of the trip that took place after Part I of this report ran last Tuesday

The latest in my Middle Eastern food adventures: After eating a Turkish breakfast two days in a row, I turned to a more traditional page in my playbook once I learned of a well-regarded hummusiya near my hotel in Los Angeles. The enclosed picture shows what Hasiba on Pico refers to on its menus as a "classic" order of hummus … although I later added the Stein Line-mandated extra splash of tahina (what America insists on calling tahini) to lighten the consistency slightly. My lone quibble: Whole-wheat pita was the only option provided and I naturally prefer fully leaded. Yet I must say it was very fresh and suitably heated.

Meal I had more times on the trip than I care to admit: Tommy's! Once I became a full-time Texas resident, trips back to Southern California — where I lived for nearly two decades — used to mean multiple In-N-Out visits. Then the city of Dallas celebrated two championships in 2011: One won by the long-suffering Mavericks and the other when the greatest fast-food burger chain on Earth started opening locations in the 214. Suddenly having multiple In-N-Out branches within driving distance was a tremendous luxury that came with the bonus of knowing I could sneak in a Tommy's detour on trips that brought me back to SoCal without worrying about "wasting" In-N-Out access. The messy triple Tommy's burger that arrived in the box shown (no cheese, no tomato, chili on the side so I can control precisely how much to add) didn't last long enough to be pictured.

Beautiful sight from a bygone era: I walked right into this old-school newsstand on the coffee prowl in Beverly Hills. Excitedly picked up USA Today's NBA preview edition because, well, everybody knows that NBA preview mags are as essential as coffee.

Numbers Game

🏀 373

Tuesday's Opening Night for the 2021-22 season is only 373 days removed from the completion of the 2020 NBA Finals in the Walt Disney World bubble. The league, of course, has crowned two champions (Lakers and Bucks) in that span.

🏀 3

Only three of the greater New York area's nine sports franchises in the NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball have won championships this century. The Brooklyn Nets are favored by every sportsbook in Las Vegas to join the New Jersey Devils (2000 and 2003), New York Yankees (2000 and 2009) and New York Giants (2007 and 2011) as the fourth this season. (PS — Should those championships won by the Devils and the Yankees from 2000 count as part of this century? I’m never sure.)

🏀 68

Dallas' 68-point exhibition victory last week over injury-hit Charlotte (127-59) would have tied the NBA record for the largest margin of victory had it happened during the regular season. Cleveland drilled Miami, also by 68 points, in December 1991 (148-80).

🏀 85

Mychal Mulder, one of four players released Saturday by Golden State, made 85 3-pointers last season in 766 minutes. That made Mulder one of just three players in league history, according to Stathead, to sink at least 80 3s in less than 800 minutes of playing time, alongside Orlando’s Marreese Speights in 2017-18 and Dallas’ Charlie Villanueva in 2014-15. Profuse apologies to Mulder, whose name I misspelled in a tweet late Friday night. I never should have messed it up because the spelling of Mulder’s first name, thanks to his Lakers fan father Randy Mulder, was inspired by Mychal Thompson — father to Mulder’s future Warriors teammate Klay Thompson. Mulder averaged 14.3 points in 22.0 minutes in his six starts for Golden State last season and shot 43.2% from long distance in those games.

🏀 7

I fired off numerous tweets in recent days about the various players from the NBA’s 2018 draft class who did and didn’t get contract extensions (and embedded a couple below). To cover the subject even more thoroughly: Seven first-round picks from that draft were not eligible for contract extensions before Monday's 6 PM ET deadline because they were either released by their teams or not tendered a qualifying offer before their fourth season. Those seven: Jacob Evans (waived by New York in 2020), Chandler Hutchison (waived by San Antonio in 2021), Džanan Musa (waived by Detroit in 2020), Jerome Robinson (fourth-year option declined by Washington in 2010), Zhaire Smith (waived by Detroit in 2020), Omari Spellman (fourth-year option declined by New York in 2020) and Moritz Wagner (fourth-year option declined by Washington in 2020).