NBA Best-Case Season Preview 2021-22: The Optimistic Outlook For All 30 Teams

By Brett Knight, Forbes Staff
Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks holding the Bill Russell NBA Finals MVP Award and the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy in July. Justin Casterline/Getty Images

This time last year, the Milwaukee Bucks were still smarting from a playoff whupping by the Heat. Fast-forward a few short months—after avenging their loss to Miami, rallying back against the Brooklyn Nets and eventually taking down the Phoenix Suns in the NBA finals—and the same team was basking in the glory of its first championship in 40 years.

How quickly fortunes can change in the NBA. And there’s no better time to look on the bright side than now, when every team is tied for first ahead of Tuesday’s opening night.

Here’s a look at what each NBA team could accomplish this season if everything goes right, with analysis from Forbes.com’s expert SportsMoney contributors.

Atlanta Hawks

Best-case scenario: With all of their key players returning, and with Cam Reddish or De’Andre Hunter blossoming into a star alongside Trae Young, the Hawks make the top Eastern Conference teams sweat once again. Read more on the Hawks’ outlook from Forbes contributor Ray Glier.

Boston Celtics

Best-case scenario: The disappointment of last season fuels Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum into making another leap, getting the Celtics back to the NBA finals for the first time since the days of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Read more on the Celtics’ outlook from Forbes contributor Hunter Felt.

Brooklyn Nets

Best-case scenario: Kyrie Irving’s vaccination brouhaha fades to the background, and a healthy Big Three leads the Nets to the championship as Cam Thomas has a breakout rookie season for a team lacking in youth. Read more on the Nets’ outlook from Forbes contributor Marie Schulte-Bockum.

Charlotte Hornets

Best-case scenario: Miles Bridges makes a leap, becoming a borderline All-Star to spur a push for the playoffs and give the Hornets a devastating one-two punch with LaMelo Ball for the next decade. Read more on the Hornets’ outlook from Forbes contributor Morten Jensen.

Chicago Bulls

Best-case scenario: A busy offseason produces an elite offense that gets Zach LaVine to the playoffs for the first time—and persuades him to re-sign next summer. Read more on the Bulls’ outlook from Forbes contributor Jason Patt.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Best-case scenario: The Cavaliers make a massive jump out of the cellar and into the play-in tournament as Darius Garland flourishes in a bigger role and Evan Mobley turns in a rookie-of-the-year performance. Read more on the Cavaliers’ outlook from Forbes contributor Chris Manning.

Detroit Pistons

Best-case scenario: Jerami Grant proves his first half last season wasn’t a fluke, and a rookie-of-the-year performance by Cade Cunningham propels the Pistons into a play-in spot. Read more on the Pistons’ outlook from Forbes contributor Duncan Smith.

Indiana Pacers

Best-case scenario: Rick Carlisle lives up to his reputation as a tactician, and subtle changes around the edge of the roster, coupled with better health luck, gets the Pacers back into the Eastern Conference’s top four. Read more on the Pacers’ outlook from Forbes contributor Tony East.

Miami Heat

Best-case scenario: A healthy Victor Oladipo and an electric Kyle Lowry, plus some vintage coaching by Erik Spoelstra, reinvigorate the core of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, producing a top-three seed in the East and, eventually, the franchise’s fourth championship. Read more on the Heat’s outlook from Forbes contributor David Ramil.

Milwaukee Bucks

Best-case scenario: Giannis Antetokounmpo, already a two-time league MVP, shows further improvement as a shooter as he enters his physical prime, and the Bucks repeat as champions. Read more on the Bucks’ outlook from Forbes contributor Morten Jensen.

New York Knicks

Best-case scenario: Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker give the Knicks an above-average offense, lifting New York to 50 wins, with home-court advantage for the second year in a row. Read more on the Knicks’ outlook from Forbes contributor Tom Rende.

Orlando Magic

Best-case scenario: Jonathan Isaac gets healthy and shows promise. Perhaps even more important, the Magic snag the top pick in next year’s draft. Read more on the Magic’s outlook from Forbes contributor Sean Deveney.

Philadelphia 76ers

Best-case scenario: The Sixers, resisting the pressure to trade Ben Simmons right away and capitalizing on a rough season by the Trail Blazers, snag Damian Lillard in a trade, eventually winning the franchise’s first championship in nearly 30 years. Read more on the 76ers’ outlook from Forbes contributor Bryan Toporek.

Toronto Raptors

Best-case scenario: Returning to their home floor in Toronto makes a difference for the Raptors right away, and the roster’s curious mix of talented veteran holdovers and tantalizing potential jells to produce a playoff berth. Read more on the Raptors’ outlook from Forbes contributor David Ramil.

Washington Wizards

Best-case scenario: Flanked by a more comfortable Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija, Bradley Beal leads the young Wizards to the play-in tournament—and then fetches a massive haul in a trade that elevates Washington into the middle of the pack in the East. Read more on the Wizards’ outlook from Forbes contributor Christopher Dodson.

LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers in a playoff game against the Phoenix Suns in May. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Dallas Mavericks

Best-case scenario: Not missing a beat under a new coaching staff, Luka Doncic puts together an MVP season, transforming the Mavericks into true championship contenders. Read more on the Mavericks’ outlook from Forbes contributor Doyle Rader.

Denver Nuggets

Best-case scenario: Jamal Murray returns early enough to fully ramp up in time for the playoffs, and Michal Porter Jr. lives up to his new max contract in the meantime, giving the Nuggets the firepower for a championship this season and beyond. Read more on the Nuggets’ outlook from Forbes contributor Joel Rush.

Golden State Warriors

Best-case scenario: Klay Thompson looks like himself in his return to the court, and the rookies show enough to keep the veterans fresh. In a wide-open Western Conference, that’s good enough for home-court advantage for a round or maybe two—and perhaps even enough to get the Warriors back to the NBA finals. Read more on the Warriors’ outlook from Forbes contributor Patrick Murray.

Houston Rockets

Best-case scenario: Rookie Jalen Green finds chemistry with Kevin Porter Jr. and removes any doubts regarding the franchise’s future ahead of the 2022 draft, one of the franchise’s last shots at adding a major building block organically before it owes picks to Oklahoma City from the ill-fated Chris Paul trade. Read more on the Rockets’ outlook from Forbes contributor Rahat Huq.

Los Angeles Clippers

Best-case scenario: The Clippers accumulate a heap of wins early behind a durable Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard returns before the playoffs to give Los Angeles enough dynamic shooting and lineup variety to emerge from the West. Read more on the Clippers’ outlook from Forbes contributor Shane Young.

Los Angeles Lakers

Best-case scenario: Russell Westbrook shows he can co-exist with his new star teammates LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and the aging rotation finds the fountain of youth to spur another championship run. Read more on the Lakers’ outlook from Forbes contributor DJ Siddiqi.

Memphis Grizzlies

Best-case scenario: With Ja Morant installed as the face of their franchise and Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. settling into secondary roles, the Grizzlies build on last season’s momentum by snagging a top-six playoff seed. Read more on the Grizzlies’ outlook from Forbes contributor Evan Sidery.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Best-case scenario: Anthony Edwards continues his scoring surge from the second half of last season, getting the Timberwolves into the play-in tournament and, more important, convincing Karl-Anthony Towns that there might be a team here worth sticking around for. Read more on the Timberwolves’ outlook from Forbes contributor Evan Sidery.

New Orleans Pelicans

Best-case scenario: Brandon Ingram makes the leap from end-of-the-bench All-Star to bona-fide star in the all-NBA conversations, and Zion Williamson shows durability and an expanded midrange game in leading the Pelicans to a first-round playoff series win. Read more on the Pelicans’ outlook from Forbes contributor Christopher Dodson.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Best-case scenario: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey begin to blossom as one of the league’s best young backcourts in the league, and the Thunder land another high draft pick, expediting their rebuild. Read more on the Thunder’s outlook from Forbes contributor Nick Crain.

Phoenix Suns

Best-case scenario: With plenty of depth around Chris Paul and Devin Booker, the Suns follow their magical run to the 2021 NBA finals with another conference championship—and maybe even more. Read more on the Suns’ outlook from Forbes contributor Evan Sidery.

Portland Trail Blazers

Best-case scenario: The Blazers finish as a top-four seed in the West and make it to the conference finals, persuading Damian Lillard to stay in Portland for the rest of his career. Read more on the Trail Blazers’ outlook from Forbes contributor Bryan Toporek.

Sacramento Kings

Best-case scenario: Marvin Bagley stays healthy, coach Luke Walton figures out how to manage his guards, and disaster among some other teams in the West opens a path to the playoffs for a franchise that hasn’t been there for 15 years. Read more on the Kings’ outlook from Forbes contributor Sean Deveney.

San Antonio Spurs

Best-case scenario: Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Derrick White become franchise headliners and offer long-term hope for a changing team, with a play-in tournament berth in the meantime. Read more on the Spurs’ outlook from Forbes contributor Rob Wolkenbrod.

Utah Jazz

Best-case scenario: The Jazz use last year’s embarrassing playoff loss as fuel and put together a top-four offense and a more versatile and switchable defense, soaring to the West’s top seed and an NBA finals appearance. Read more on the Jazz’s outlook from Forbes contributor Shane Young.


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