Rod Beard’s 2021-22 NBA preview: Eastern storylines, contenders, players, rookies to watch

Detroit News

The Detroit News’ Rod Beard breaks down the top NBA Eastern Conference issues, teams and individuals for the upcoming season.

Storylines to watch

►Kyrie Irving’s status: In the midst of their championship hopes, the Brooklyn Nets are dealing with a different challenge with Irving not being able to play home games because of a law in New York City requiring COVID vaccination. The Nets took it further by announcing that Irving will not be a part-time player and will hold him out of road games. Whether it results in a trade or Irving just sitting out the season will be something to monitor all season, until there’s some kind of resolution.

►The East is rising: The Milwaukee Bucks are the defending champions. Let that sink in again. They still have most of their roster intact, but they’ll face a bigger group of contenders, including the Nets, Sixers, Hawks and Heat. If the Nets can stay healthy and not have the Kyrie Irving situation be a distraction, they’d likely be favored. From top to bottom, the East is stronger than previous years, with teams like the Bulls and Heat making big moves to improve.

More: Rod Beard’s 2021-22 NBA preview: Western storylines, contenders, players, rookies to watch

►What happens with Simmons? Similar to the Irving saga, the Philadelphia 76ers’ title hopes are hanging by a thread with Ben Simmons, who is unhappy with the team and had demanded a trade. It looks like he’ll rejoin the team, but some of the bridges have been singed with franchise leader Joel Embiid. A trade seems likely eventually, but how much value does Simmons have left with his discontent?

Title contenders

►Milwaukee Bucks: They’ve been the chasers for a few years with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, but how will they handle the success of achieving their goal? Defense has been their calling card, and if they’re healthy, they should be able to return as one of the top seeds in the playoffs. That’s where the fun will begin.

►Brooklyn Nets: The assumption is that they won’t have Kyrie Irving, but the Nets are talented enough to win it all with their top two stars, Kevin Durant and James Harden, along with their veteran supporting cast. If they learned anything from last season, it’s that the opportunities aren’t guaranteed and that injuries aren’t conveniently timed.

►Miami Heat: The Heat had a disappointing first-round exit from the playoffs last season, but with the addition of Kyle Lowry in free agency, they look to be positioned to make another run in East. Getting forward P.J. Tucker in the offseason could register as just as big when the postseason rolls around and they need his toughness, experience and defense.

Players to watch

►Kevin Durant, Nets: If the Nets don’t have Kyrie Irving this season, it just opens more opportunity for Durant to be a dominant scorer and defender and put the team on his shoulders. He was close to carrying the shorthanded Nets in the conference finals last season, but a toe on the line was the difference in victory and defeat. His only other MVP was in 2014, and spacing them out this many years would be special.

►Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks: Every season can start with Antetokounmpo as an MVP candidate. His defense always puts him in the conversation, but offensively, he finds a way to make incremental improvements each year, too. Antetokounmpo will have all eyes on him because the Bucks are the defending champs, but he’s never been one to back down from a challenge.

►Joel Embiid, Sixers: Last season looked to be Embiid’s year, with the Sixers securing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, but stumbling in the second round against the Hawks. Embiid showed that with or without Ben Simmons, he can carry the load for a high-level team; the next step will be leading them to playoff success. The Sixers have mostly the same roster, so the expectations won’t dip.

Top rookies

►Cade Cunningham, Pistons: The No. 1 overall pick likely won’t propel the Pistons to the playoffs, but he’ll be a valuable addition to their cache of young players. Cunningham showed in Summer League that he’ll take on all comers, including No. 2 pick Jalen Green, and that all the hype around his versatile skill set is warranted. He’s been slowed by an ankle injury in preseason, but the Pistons are being ultra-cautious about bringing him back.

►Evan Mobley, Cavaliers: The 7-foot wunderkind ended up in a good place where he can develop his game and not have ridiculous expectations from the start. Mobley still will need some time to adjust his game to the NBA, but when he does, it’ll be a sight to behold. He has guard skills in a 7-foot frame, and when he gets more strength, some believe he could be the next coming of Anthony Davis.

►Jalen Suggs, Magic: All signs pointed to Suggs ending up with the Toronto Raptors, who let him slip to No. 5 and another ideal development scenario in Orlando. Suggs had a standout season with Gonzaga, including a trip to the NCAA championship game. Suggs didn’t have a stellar performance in Summer League, but he’ll join a Magic group that is building slowly.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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