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

Detroit News

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

Storylines to watch

►The veteran Lakers: Last season, the Lakers underachieved, which set the stage for a dramatic transformation. They added Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Wayne Ellington and a cast of young players to try to get back to a championship level. Regardless of whether it works, the Lakers will be must-see TV, if only to see whether the ship sinks or reaches its destination. They’ll just need to avoid injury to their aging core.

►The injury bug: Last season saw injuries to marquee players, including the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and the Nuggets’ Jamal Murray, short-circuiting their playoff runs. Each team has the depth to stay in the playoff race without a key player, but playoff seeding in the West is so important, and if they don’t get off to a good start and keep up with the pace, their postseason runs could be truncated.

►The Warriors are back: Losing Klay Thompson to a couple of injuries has helped push Golden State to the periphery for a couple of years, but with Thompson set to return, the Warriors could have a renaissance. During their struggles, they have added some young talent, including No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman last season, and first-round pick Jonathan Kuminga this year, who could pair with Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Andrew Wiggins nicely.

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

Title contenders

►Los Angeles Lakers: Pencil in any team with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and a modicum of other talent. This group will be fun to watch, with the additions of Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, even with the jokes about this being an All-Star roster from 2010. Navigating through the regular season with load management and without serious injuries will be the challenge.

►Phoenix Suns: There’s a sense that just getting to the NBA Finals last season wasn’t enough for Chris Paul and the young core. It was a big step forward for the Suns, with Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton getting to shine on the big stage, and Paul getting his first shot at a title. Now, the hard part will be building on that success, with mostly internal growth and no big free agents or draft picks.

►Utah Jazz: The Jazz were the top seed in the playoffs last year and had a disappointing exit in the second round. They still have their key pieces, with Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley leading the way, but they’ll have to figure out how to win the big games in the playoffs, even when they’re not playing their best.

Players to watch

►LeBron James, Lakers: At age 36, James still is the influential player in the league, and where he goes, the spotlight goes. He’ll need to be an alchemist this year, with a revamped roster full of veterans who will need one unifying voice to follow. He’s done it before, but he’ll also have to balance leadership on and off the court, resting so that he can be ready for what looks to be an intriguing playoff run.

►Luka Doncic, Mavericks: He’s been improving each season, but this could be the year that he finally breaks through in the MVP conversation. Doncic is emerging as one of the premier players in the NBA, but his surrounding cast hasn’t been enough to make a big playoff run. That could change this year, with Jason Kidd taking the reins as head coach in Dallas.

►Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers: There have been hints that Lillard could look to be traded if things don’t improve in Portland. He’s one of the most exciting players in the league because of his shooting range and his will to win. Will the Blazers look to put better complementary pieces around him, or will this be the season that things change drastically in the Pacific Northwest?

Top rookies

►Jalen Green, Rockets: After a standout season in the G League, the No. 2 overall pick is ready to make a big splash. Green believes that he should have been the top pick over the Pistons’ Cade Cunningham, and that slight looks like it could fuel him for the first few years of his career. Green is a talented scorer and slasher, and he’ll have plenty of room to grow with the rebuilding Rockets.

►Jonathan Kuminga, Warriors: In many mock drafts, Kuminga was rated as a top-five talent, but he dropped to Golden State at No. 7 — and they were happy to oblige. He’s athletic and still developing his full game, but on a stacked Warriors team, Kuminga will have time to find himself without the pressure of being a leading scorer or primary player. It’s a good situation for him to excel over time.

►Alperen Sengun, Rockets: Houston gets a two-for-one — and really, it’s a three-for-one, with Josh Christopher and Green — after a highly successful draft. Sengun has good skills in the paint, as well as on the perimeter, and in Summer League, he looked much more polished than most of the other rookies. The Rockets will have plenty of playing time to allow him to develop, and to grow with their new young core.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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