The 2021-22 NBA season starts Tuesday, and hopefully it will be the first normal one in two years. The pandemic turned the most predictable of the four major sports into Bizarro World.

The NBA bubble of 2020 was strange, but it produced the highest-quality playoff basketball we’ve ever seen. The October NBA Finals also led to a truncated 72-game 2020-21 schedule. With a short offseason (just 72 days), bodies broke down. An unprecedented eight All-Stars missed playoff games. That contributed to an unlikely matchup in the NBA Finals with the Milwaukee Bucks defeating the Phoenix Suns.

This season — the NBA’s 75th anniversary — should be less weird. We’re back to an 82-game season. We’re back to the schedule starting in October and ending in June. We’re hopefully back to more pure basketball storylines, such as:

  • Unhappy players: Kyrie Irving’s refusal to get vaccinated has led to a bizarre leave of absence from the Brooklyn Nets. Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers are stuck in a loveless marriage until he gets traded, which could be any day now.
  • Injured All-Stars: Klay Thompson is returning from an Achilles tendon injury, but we don’t know when (Christmas, maybe?). Kawhi Leonard may return from an ACL tear, but we also don’t know when (playoffs, maybe?).
  • The Old & the Young: LeBron James (remember him?) and the Los Angeles Lakers are trying to make another championship run with the league’s oldest roster. Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies are trying to make it back to the playoffs with the league’s second-youngest roster.
  • A change in Dallas: Former coach Rick Carlisle is back home in Indiana running the Pacers for a second stint. Who took Carlisle’s old job in Dallas? Former Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd will mentor the league’s premier young star. Luka Doncic will turn just 23 in February.
  • The one-hit wonders: The betting public does not believe in the Phoenix Suns or Atlanta Hawks. The Suns aren’t even favored to win their own division. And the Hawks, who made a surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, have the 12th-best championship odds.

According to The Action Network, the most likely NBA Finals matchup is the Nets vs. the Lakers. Will that happen? Here’s a look at the top five championship contenders:

The Nets are the drama show that never ends. It seems like Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Irving are always feuding with someone. The latest kerfuffle involves flat-earther, sage-burning enthusiast, and anti-vaxxer Irving who’s currently sitting out because he won’t comply with New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Look, we all know that Irving is an oddball. But what exactly is the end game here? Weird. Assuming he does return, the Nets are the favorite to win it all. Even if he doesn’t return, they still might be the favorite. Brooklyn had the most efficient offense in NBA history last season despite their Big Three only playing eight regular-season games together.

The Lakers are one of the oldest teams in NBA history. James, who will turn 37 in December, has missed significant time due to injury in two of the past three seasons. His age and mileage are finally catching up with him.

The additions of Russell Westbrook (33) and Carmelo Anthony (37) are interesting. Westbrook and Anthony should be able to take some of the offensive load off LeBron. But will this team have enough fresh legs for a deep playoff run? The Lakers’ second-best player in Anthony Davis has never been able to stay healthy for a full season. But if L.A. can avoid the injury bug, this team is good enough to win it all. Even with creaky knees.

The Bucks are hoping for more good luck. Milwaukee came within a Durant shoe size from being eliminated in the conference semifinals. There’s a parallel universe where Mike Budenholzer is probably fired and Giannis Antetokounmpo is seriously questioning his commitment to the Bucks. Whatever. History forgets the details. Milwaukee is the champion. Budenholzer got a rich contract extension. Antetokounmpo is forever the guy who brought a title to a small-market team. Repeating will be tough. But the Bucks have a formidable trio in Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday. If Holiday continues to be the player he was during the playoffs (a league-best plus/minus of +160), Milwaukee will be tough to stop.

The Warriors are trying to squeeze out one more championship while Steph Curry is still in his prime. Curry led the league in scoring (30.2) and finished third in the MVP voting last year despite little help. How well Golden State does will depend on Klay Thompson’s health. During the Warriors’ run to three titles, he was a standout two-way player. It’s unlikely Thompson will be as good defensively, but he should still remain a top shooter. The biggest question marks, however, surround the Warriors young forwards: second-year man James Wiseman and rookie Jonathan Kuminga (last year, Golden State was better without Wiseman, 21-12) Both need to contribute for this team to be a contender.

The Suns are going to have to prove themselves. No team benefited more from injuries in the playoffs. Phoenix beat a Lakers team with a hurt Anthony Davis, a Denver team without Jamal Murray, and a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard.

The best thing the Suns have going for them is continuity. They return the highest percentage (87%) of last season’s (regular-season) minutes that are still on the roster. Chris Paul could have left as a free agent but decided to make another run with this group. Paul is 36, so he’ll need Devin Booker (27.3 points in the playoffs) and Deandre Ayton to keep ascending.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.