By Ayotunde Onabolu
It is safe to say that the 2021/2022 Los Angeles Lakers might go down as one of, if not the most disappointing teams in NBA history. When the offseason moves were made, and the Lakers roster consisted of heavy duty names like LeBron James (career 27.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game), Anthony Davis (career 23.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game), and Russell Westbrook (career 22.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game), forming the Big-3 starting core of the team, and future Hall of Famers like Carmelo Anthony (career 22.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game) and Dwight Howard (career 15.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game).
How the Lakers managed to bungle the entire season still remains a mystery to several people, although former head coach Frank Vogel, who was fired even before the end of their last regular season game, and Mr Triple-Double, Westbrook, have been held responsible for the most part, while Davis’ several missed games due to injury has also been identified as a reason for the team’s struggles.
But even in the absence of Davis, it is quite unthinkable that a team with all those other superstars could not even finish 10th in the Western Conference, which would have placed them in the Play-In tournament for a chance to advance to the playoffs as the eight seed.
Without question, the Lakers were the disappointment of the season. But whilst fans may be feeling downcast by their team’s performance, the basketball world can look ahead to the 2022 NBA Draft Lottery in which the Lakers have a decent shot at having a top five pick, a pick that can either be inserted immediately into the starting lineup or be used as a bargaining chip in a trade to land very useful rotation players to add to the team’s depth, something they really lacked in the outgone regular season. With the Lakers and their struggles out of the way, let us consider some of the great storylines of the season.
Most Impressive Team
It is unsure a lot of people will disagree with the choice of the Memphis Grizzlies as the most impressive team of the regular season. The Grizzlies had the second youngest team this season with an average age of 23.9 years. Only Oklahoma City Thunder had a younger team with an average age of 23.3 years.
In comparison, OKC finished with the second worst record in the Western Conference and the fourth worst record in the entire league, while the Grizzlies finished with the second best record in the West and in the entire league.
Ja Morant emerged as a contender for the Most Valuable Player award earlier on in the season, but a string of injuries meant he could only play 57 games for his team all season. When Morant played, the Grizzlies posted an impressive 36-21 record, but what made the team’s performance so incredible is the fact that in the 25 games Morant missed, the Grizzlies were 20-5!
Think about that. Without its best player in the lineup, they won 20 of 25 games! Compare that to the Lakers who could not win anything even with a combination of two of their best three players at any point in time, and you can appreciate the excellent job Grizzlies’ head coach Taylor Jenkins has done with that group of young players.
Rookie of the Year
For a long time this season, Cleveland’s Evan Mobley led the rookie ladder with his impressive display. This season, he averaged 15 points, 8.3 assists and 1.7 blocks (sixth in the league) per game. He also shot a respectable 50.3% from the floor. He helped Cleveland double their win tally from last season.
Not many rookies in NBA history have made the type of impact Mobley made this year. The typical rookies of the year play in very bad teams where they are allowed to have a lot of the ball and do whatever they want, so they end up posting big numbers with no result.
Toronto Raptors’ Scottie Barnes is very much in the mix for this award. He averaged 15.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game and helped the Raptors to a fifth-place finish in the tough Eastern Conference. The Raptors won the NBA title in 2020 but could not replicate their success in the 2021 season following star man, Kawhi Leonard’s departure to Los Angeles.
The Raptors finished 12th in the East and President Masai Ujiri, who has been one of the top executives in the league in the last decade, went to work and drafted Barnes with the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. That move drew a lot of criticism from basketball heads because Jalen Suggs (who was drafted by Orlando with the fifth pick) was considered heir apparent to Kyle Lowry who was facing free agency and was rumored to be leaving Canada.
In the end though, it was the Raptors who had the last laugh as Fred VanVleet stepped up as the team’s floor general and Barnes flourishing as a forward—big, strong, athletic and very defensive.
Number One overall pick, Cade Cunningham struggled to make an immediate impact on the Pistons as he missed the first four games of the season and scored 2 points and 6 points in his first two appearances with a combined 3-of-22 shooting.
But as the season progressed, Cunningham found rhythm and posted impressive performances on both ends of the floor, including two 34-point performances against Denver and Brooklyn (both losses) and two triple-doubles.
Cunningham averaged 17.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game, but like several Rookie of the Year winners before him, his team posted a dismal 23-
59 record.
In the end, it may come down to Mobley and Barnes in this race. Whoever won this award out of the two would have thoroughly deserved it, to be honest.
Most Improved Player
The 2012/2022 season saw the emergence of some players beyond anybody’s imagination. Detroit Piston’s Saddiq Bey dropped 51 points against a sorry Orlando Magic team, and the Ant Man, Anthony Edwards posted a 48-point performance as his Minnesota Timberwolves lost to the Golden State Warriors in November, before dropping 49 points on the San Antonio Spurs in a six-point win in the team’s penultimate regular season game.
Whilst Bey and Edwards may have had some impressive single game outputs, Golden State’s Jordan Poole emerged as a force to be reckoned with. In a season where Klay Thompson made his return from a two-and-a-half-year injury layoff in January, and Stephen Curry and Draymond Green missed a combined 54 games, Poole stepped up big time to lead the team.
He played 76 games and started in 51, largely due to Thompson’s return, but his production never suffered. He was as efficient coming off the bench as he was starting. And with not much news about Curry’s return from his foot injury, Poole may be set to start against the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs.
Poole averaged 18.5 points (up from 12 points last year), 4 assists (up from 1.9 assists last year) and 3.4 rebounds (up from 1.8 rebounds last year), while shooting 44.8% from the field and 36.4% from three. Poole went a perfect 4-for-4 in the team’s final regular season game against the New Orleans Pelicans to emerge as the league’s best free throw shooter at 92.5%.
Another player who made a strong case for the MIP award has to be Charlotte’s Miles Bridges who posted career highs in points, assists, rebounds, steals and blocks. He went from starting in only 19 games (66 games in all) last season to starting and playing in 80 games this season.
Bridges’ chemistry with star teammate LaMelo Ball resulted in him having perhaps more highlight dunks than any other player in the league. He bumped his scoring from 12.7 points per game last year to 20.2 points this year, and his role in offense increased tremendously as he went from 9.4 field goal attempts last year to 15.2 field goal attempts this year.
Cleveland’s Darius Garland took the bull by the horn and led Cleveland to a more-than-respectable eighth place finish and a Play-In game with the Brooklyn Nets. The third-year guard posted career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, field goal percentage and free throw percentage, and was named an All- Star for his string of impressive performances.
It is important to note that the three players played for teams that all posted winning records in the regular season, and the massive improvement of competition in the Eastern Conference is the reason why Cleveland (44-38) and Charlotte (43-39) will have to go through the Play-In Tournament for a place in the playoffs.
Sixth Man of the Year
This award is given to the best player in the league off the bench. One name stands out, and that is Miami’s Tyler Herro. Herro led all bench players in scoring with 20.7 points per game. He averaged 32.6 minutes per game, which some people think is too high for a bench player, but does he fit the description of a bench player? Absolutely! Very importantly, Herro was a key part of Miami’s run to the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Jordan Clarkson of the Utah Jazz, who is the reigning sixth man of the year, continued his impressive performances this season. He averaged 16 points per game (second among bench players) and helped Utah to a 49-33 record (fifth in the Western Conference).
Some other names who performed admirably off the bench are Kelly Oubre Jr. of Charlotte who made 10 threes against Indiana in January, Kevin Love of Cleveland, who played 74 games this season—his highest amount of games played since he helped the Cavs win the title in 2016, and Cameron Johnson of Phoenix who shot 42.5% from three-point territory (4th in the league) and averaged career highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage and minutes per game, and above all, helped the Suns to the best record in the entire league (64-18).
Defensive Player of the Year
This is one award that has historically gone to big men. Since the inception of the award in the 1982/83 season, only five guards have won the award, with the latest being Gary Payton back in 1996.
This year, though, Boston Celtics’ Marcus Smart is making a huge case for this award. Smart has created a persona for himself as one of the most disruptive players in the league—a proper pest who hangs on to his match up and picks them up 94 feet. Smart is the clear example of “what he does defensively does not show up on the stats sheet.” But if you ask players whom he has guarded, they will testify firsthand to his qualities as an elite defender.
Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz is no stranger to defense. Gobert is a three-time DPOY, and he has been in the NBA All-Defensive First Team five times. This season, he is averaging 2.1 blocks (third in the league behind Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr and Boston’s Robert Williams III), proof of his elite interior rim protection.
One name though, that has got a lot of people talking is Phoenix Suns’ Mikal Bridges. Wonder why Phoenix stormed to the league’s best record? Wonder no further. They had Bridges defending every team’s best wing player, and he did it so masterfully without committing too many fouls (1.8 fouls per game).
This could be a close contest, but we will see.
Most Valuable Player
Memphis’ Ja Morant and Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan were in the MVP conversation for quite some time, but Morant’s missed games (25 in all) and the Bulls’ inconsistent run in the East meant that as the season wound down, three players are now generally considered for the award—two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, this year’s scoring champion Joel Embiid, and reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.
For a long time, it looked like it was a two-horse race between Denver’s Jokic and Philadelphia’s Embiid, and the matchup of both centers in March looked to be some sort of a decider.
In the end, Embiid posted 34 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks, shooting 55% from the field on 20 shot attempts, 3-for-3 from three and 9-for-10 from the foul line. Jokic, on the other hand posted 22 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and two blocks on 50% shooting.
Embiid may have won the battle, but it was Jokic who won the war as the Nuggets overcame a 19-point deficit to defeat the 76ers 114-110. Embiid averaged a league high 30.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists (career high) for the season to lead the 76ers to a fourth-place finish in the East (51-31 record). Embiid scored 30+ points in 40 of his 68 games and became the first center since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000 to win the scoring title.
With Embiid, the 76ers went 45-23, but without him, they went 6-8. Embiid posted three triple-doubles and 46 double-doubles. It is important to note that Embiid did all of this without Ben Simmons who ended up getting traded to Brooklyn for James Harden who has struggled since he joined the 76ers.
Reigning MVP, Jokic averaged career highs in points (27.1 points), rebounds (13.8 rebounds), steals (1.5 steals), blocks (0.9 blocks) and field goal percentage (58.3%). Jokic scored 25+ points in 47 games, posted 19 triple-doubles and 66 double-doubles—both league highs. With Jokic in the lineup, the Nuggets went 46-28, but without him in the lineup, they fell to 2-6.
Defending champion, Milwaukee Bucks’ Antetokounmpo averaged 29.9 points (career high), 11.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. He shot 55.3% from the field and improved his free throw shooting from 68.5% last year to 72.2%. The Greek Freak scored 25+ points in 55 of the 67 games he played this season and recorded a 50-point triple double in a win over Indiana in February on his way to four triple-doubles and 46 double-doubles for the season.
The Bucks were 45-22 with Giannis and 6-9 without him. Traditional stats suggest a very close race, but advanced stats shed some more light. Jokic led the league in PER at 32.8 which is the highest mark in NBA history. Think about it. No player in NBA history—not the GOAT Michael Jordan, not LeBron James, not Wilt Chamberlain, not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—has ever posted a better PER than Jokic!
Jokic also led the league in Win Shares, with Antetokounmpo and Embiid coming in second and third respectively. For all the talk about Jokic not necessarily being a defensive factor, he posted a defensive win share of 4.6 only behind Boston’s Jayson Tatum, and above Embiid (fourth) and Antetokounmpo (eighth). Jokic also led the league in Box Plus/Minus with Antetokounmpo and Embiid finishing second and third respectively.
This is going to be tough to call—for real.
With the regular season out of the way, who else is excited for the playoffs???
Image - The New York Times


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