Predicting the next NBA champion and major award winners

Photo illustration by Nick Roy/theScore

Heading into the 2021-22 regular season, theScore's NBA staff predicts who will take home the individual hardware at the end of the year and which team will hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

Eastern Conference finals

Elsa / Getty Images Sport / Getty
East Champ East Finalist
Casciaro Nets Bucks
Chandler Nets Bucks
Nacion Bucks Nets
Potter Nets Bucks
Soveta Heat Bucks
Weinstein Nets Heat
Winick Nets Bucks
Wolfond Nets Bucks

Last season's exhilarating series between the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets is still fresh in many of our memories. The seven-game set produced a plethora of unforgettable moments, including the tip of Kevin Durant's massive shoe saving the Bucks. With both sides expected to battle for the top seed again this year, it follows that they'll likely square off for a chance at The Finals.

Our predictions don't foreshadow complete Brooklyn and Milwaukee dominance in the postseason, however. The Miami Heat, now equipped with one-time champion point guard Kyle Lowry, also earned consideration for a deep run, echoing the one they made in the Disney World bubble.

Western Conference finals

Garrett Ellwood / National Basketball Association / Getty
West Champ West Finalist
Casciaro Lakers Jazz
Chandler Jazz Nuggets
Nacion Nuggets Lakers
Potter Jazz Lakers
Soveta Jazz Suns
Weinstein Lakers Nuggets
Winick Nuggets Suns
Wolfond Jazz Suns

The Western Conference race feels wide-open once again with so many questions surrounding several expected contenders. The Los Angeles Lakers have a much older, entirely overhauled roster; the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers are indefinitely without Jamal Murray and Kawhi Leonard, respectively, due to ACL injuries; and the Golden State Warriors are still waiting for the return of Klay Thompson.

All that volatility might explain why our editors frequently selected the Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns to make the West finals. The Jazz, who owned the top record in the league last season, kept their core together and should be the team to beat, while the Suns, last year's finalists, are a smart pick for another long playoff run. And you can never truly count out LeBron James, which is why some are bullish on an older Lakers squad's chances.

Finals

Garrett Ellwood / National Basketball Association / Getty
Champion Finalist
Casciaro Nets Lakers
Chandler Nets Jazz
Nacion Bucks Nuggets
Potter Nets Jazz
Soveta Jazz Heat
Weinstein Nets Lakers
Winick Nets Nuggets
Wolfond Nets Jazz

Undeterred by the injury and chemistry concerns that loom over the new-look Nets, over half of our editors tabbed Brooklyn to take home this year’s championship. The Bucks and Nuggets - teams that feature the league's two most recent MVPs - and the always competitive Jazz were identified as the biggest threats to Durant, James Harden, and company.

15th seeds

Chris Schwegler / National Basketball Association / Getty
East West
Casciaro Magic Rockets
Chandler Magic Rockets
Nacion Magic Rockets
Potter Magic Rockets
Soveta Magic Thunder
Weinstein Magic Thunder
Winick Pistons Rockets
Wolfond Magic Thunder

A group of rebuilding teams is expected to bring up the rear in each conference, though predicting the West basement seems more difficult than in the East. Votes are essentially split between the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder to finish last in the Western Conference, but the Orlando Magic are clear favorites to bottom out in their half of the league.

Rookie of the Year

Garrett Ellwood / National Basketball Association / Getty
Pick (Team)
Casciaro Cade Cunningham (Pistons)
Chandler Cade Cunningham (Pistons)
Nacion Jalen Green (Rockets)
Potter Cade Cunningham (Pistons)
Soveta Jalen Green (Rockets)
Weinstein Jalen Green (Rockets)
Winick Jalen Suggs (Magic)
Wolfond Cade Cunningham (Pistons)

It's no surprise that picks No. 1 and No. 2 from a heralded 2021 draft are the most popular choices for the league's top award for first-year players. Cunningham may be a generational star in the making for the Detroit Pistons, but Green's scoring versatility could give him the numbers to edge the Oklahoma State product.

Not everyone followed that line of thinking, however. Magic debutant Suggs might be an outlier prediction to win Rookie of the Year. Interestingly, no one felt confident enough to choose Cleveland Cavaliers big man Evan Mobley (the No. 3 pick) or the Toronto Raptors' all-around pro Scottie Barnes (taken at No. 4).

Coach of the Year

C. Morgan Engel / Getty Images Sport / Getty
Pick (Team)
Casciaro Quin Snyder (Jazz)
Chandler Erik Spoelstra (Heat)
Nacion Michael Malone (Nuggets)
Potter Quin Snyder (Jazz)
Soveta Taylor Jenkins (Grizzlies)
Weinstein Michael Malone (Nuggets)
Winick Taylor Jenkins (Grizzlies)
Wolfond Chris Finch (Timberwolves)

Predicting the Coach of the Year means picking a bench boss who not only leads their club to a strong season, but also clearly surpasses expectations. While our editors don't expect teams like the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves to make deep playoff pushes, they are banking on those squads finishing with better records than the preseason consensus suggests.

Executive of the Year

Jeff Haynes / National Basketball Association / Getty
Pick (Team)
Casciaro Sean Marks (Nets)
Chandler Rob Pelinka (Lakers)
Nacion Sean Marks (Nets)
Potter Tommy Sheppard (Wizards)
Soveta Pat Riley (Heat)
Weinstein Pat Riley (Heat)
Winick Arturas Karnisovas (Bulls)
Wolfond Sean Marks (Nets)

In modern times, Executive of the Year - the only major award voted on by the teams themselves - usually recognizes one of two distinct achievements: the acquisition of star players in blockbuster moves or teams that reach unexpected heights thanks to a timely coaching change.

But maybe rival execs will buck the recent trend and give props to Sean Marks for both his years-long team-building efforts and for navigating the upcoming season with one of his signature stars in self-imposed exile.

Most Improved Player

Vaughn Ridley / National Basketball Association / Getty
Editor Pick (Team)
Casciaro OG Anunoby (Raptors)
Chandler Terance Mann (Clippers)
Nacion Jaren Jackson Jr. (Grizzlies)
Potter Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)
Soveta Kevin Porter Jr. (Rockets)
Weinstein OG Anunoby (Raptors)
Winick Keldon Johnson (Spurs)
Wolfond Jordan Poole (Warriors)

With at least one player on each team having a potential claim to the Most Improved Player award, it's no surprise our editors went in a variety of directions. For the most part, these picks are players near the end of their rookie contracts looking to prove to the NBA that they're extremely valuable pieces.

For others, like Michael Porter Jr. and Anunoby, the expected leap would take them from effective starters to full-fledged stars.

Defensive Player of the Year

John W. McDonough / Sports Illustrated / Getty
Editor Pick (Team)
Casciaro Joel Embiid (76ers)
Chandler Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
Nacion Anthony Davis (Lakers)
Potter Bam Adebayo (Heat)
Soveta Anthony Davis (Lakers)
Weinstein Rudy Gobert (Jazz)
Winick Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
Wolfond Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

Antetokounmpo - the 2019-20 Defensive Player of the Year and the fifth-place finisher last season - received the widest support; clearly, several of our editors don't believe the Greek Freak will take his foot off the gas after winning his first title.

Gobert, the DPOY in three of the past four seasons, only garnered one vote. If the Jazz again boast one of the league's best defenses with the towering Frenchman anchoring the paint, he stands a strong chance of joining Hall of Famers Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace as the third member of the four-time-winner club.

Sixth Man of the Year

Alex Goodlett / Getty Images Sport / Getty
Editor Pick (Team)
Casciaro Tyler Herro (Heat)
Chandler Patty Mills (Nets)
Nacion Jordan Clarkson (Jazz)
Potter Derrick Rose (Knicks)
Soveta Tyler Herro (Heat)
Weinstein Jordan Clarkson (Jazz)
Winick Kevin Huerter (Hawks)
Wolfond De'Anthony Melton (Grizzlies)

Our editors were all over the place trying to figure out who would be this season's top-performing bench player. The variance makes a lot of sense. Rotations are far from set in stone this early, and a couple of unknowns could impact eligibility; for example, will Kyrie Irving really miss the season? If so, Mills, who received some consideration here, may be thrust into a permanent starting role, rendering him ineligible for this award.

Most Valuable Player

Mitchell Leff / Getty Images Sport / Getty
Editor Pick (Team)
Casciaro Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
Chandler Kevin Durant (Nets)
Nacion Kevin Durant (Nets)
Potter Nikola Jokic (Nuggets)
Soveta Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
Weinstein Stephen Curry (Warriors)
Winick Kevin Durant (Nets)
Wolfond Kevin Durant (Nets)

Although he has to share lead duties with nine-time All-Star Harden, a majority of the panel feels Durant will separate himself enough from the pack to claim his second regular-season MVP honor - his first in eight years.

The Nets superstar isn't a consensus selection, though. Doncic has been on the cusp of the MVP conversation for a couple of seasons but has arguably been held back by a lack of team success. Last year's scoring champion, Curry, has won the award on two previous occasions and is always a threat for a third, especially if the Warriors rebound this season following the eventual return of Thompson.

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Predicting the next NBA champion and major award winners
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