Empire of the Suns’ NBA preview: Title favs, MVP picks and players to watch

Oct 19, 2021, 11:35 AM | Updated: 5:46 pm

Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks heads to the net as Kevin Durant #7 of the Brookly...

Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks heads to the net as Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets defends during game seven of the Eastern Conference second round at Barclays Center on June 19, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Brooklyn Nets 115-111 to win the series. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The 2021-22 NBA season is upon us.

Empire of the Suns podcast co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman dive into the new year with this NBA-wide glance. What is the Phoenix Suns’ place in the hierarchy of the league coming off an NBA Finals appearance? They discuss that, look at surprise players and teams, and eventually make picks for the end-of-season awards, including MVP.

How do you currently evaluate the NBA landscape at the top and the Suns’ chances of contending again?

Kellan Olson: It’s another terrific year for the league because there is even more parity, and that includes the championship tier as well. To start at the bottom and work our way up, the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers, Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets are some gelling, health and a young player or two taking a step forward away from really being in the discussion. But there’s a clear cutoff of a top-five that includes the Suns alongside the Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz.

Looking at the West, this is easy for me as someone much higher on Phoenix than the consensus and generally lower on just about everyone else. The Jazz give me the heebie-jeebies with some ownership things happening and the feeling of this being a make-or-break season for their current core. Before we even get to the Russell Westbrook stuff, the Lakers need to figure out who guys 4-9 are in the rotation and a few of the potential candidates are already injured.

I have the Suns this close to the Nets or Bucks, but the top-level star power and overall balance on both of those teams is ridiculously strong. However you paint it, though, the Suns are absolutely in the discussion and I think they will be the best team in the West.

Kevin Zimmerman: I’ll begin by saying it’s a good thing the Suns aren’t in the Eastern Conference. There are still red flags galore around the Philadelphia 76ers with the Ben Simmons situation, but I would absolutely not want to mess with the Bucks or Nets just to get out of the conference semifinals.

Regardless of if Kyrie Irving plays another game for Brooklyn, that roster is stacked with the two best scorers in the NBA and tons of complementary pieces from floor-spacing and defensive perspectives. The Bucks are a little thin on the backend, but if healthy, the Giannis guy is looking terrifying with pull-up threes and post Nowitzki fadeaways in the preseason.

Out in the Western Conference, there’s a lot more parity: it’s maybe 10 or 11 teams deep. Utah, Denver and Phoenix I believe will succeed with continuity. Golden State and both Los Angeles teams have lower floors but plenty of reasons to bet on. After that, Portland, Dallas and Memphis should be firmly in the playoff conversation. You’d think one of New Orleans, Sacramento, Minnesota and San Antonio will be the surprise of the league.

I don’t see any reason why the Suns shouldn’t get a first-round homecourt advantage. I would put money on them earning a top-two seed even. But contending for a title? As we saw last postseason, there’s a lot more to that, and there are plenty of teams who are in the conversation.

Give us one team you are higher on than most and one lower.

Olson: I think the Nuggets are going to be really, really good even while Jamal Murray was out. Michael Porter Jr. made the leap once Murray got hurt and his dumpster fire on defense in the playoffs won’t be as big of a deal through the regular season. Facundo Campazzo and Monte Morris both looked about it during the playoff run, Austin Rivers was a good desperation find, Aaron Gordon will be more comfortable in Year 2 and I love The Greens reserve frontcourt of JaMychal and Jeff. What if there’s something there now with Bol Bol or Zeke Nnaji? Is Bones Hyland our next great heat-check sixth man? Oh yeah, the ever-reliable Will Barton and MVP Nikola Jokic too with a great coach in Mike Malone.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’m not picking up what some are putting down with the Dallas Mavericks as darkhorse title contenders. Luka Doncic has quietly worn down two seasons in a row and Dallas once again couldn’t add a second perimeter option and ball-handler. It almost always looks forced when Kristaps Porzingis is on the court, and their answer for that is to begin the year with him at the 4. Good thing … checks notes … wait … Jason Kidd is at the helm? Oh no!

Zimmerman: I’m pretty damn high on the Grizzlies. Forward Jaren Jackson Jr. should be healthy and has his contract extension as of Monday, and projections have Ja Morant sniffing Derrick Rose 2011 MVP-type numbers. The supporting cast is tough as nails and diverse, too. As you saw above, I think they can be in the conversation with Portland and Dallas squads that have legit superstars.

Is it cheating to say I’m low on the Lakers? Oddsmakers are buying them, but I can see a lot of schematic problems with their superstar cast. Anthony Davis and LeBron James and Russell Westbrook need to stay healthy, but even so there is just not enough punch or shooting alongside them for me to believe in that squad. Frank Vogel had a sneaky good group of defenders last year, but they’re leaning on Malik Monk, Trevor Ariza, Carmelo Anthony and Rajon Rondo to get it done. Those guys generally will know what they have to do on defense. Physically, can they?

Toss out some fun players! Who are some interesting swing guys for you across the league?

Olson: Jaren Jackson Jr. will either ascend with his team or leave the Memphis Grizzlies on a manic hunt for a capable No. 2 alongside Ja Morant, who is ready to advance in the playoffs now. Is this what we’re going to be saying with the Charlotte Hornets and LaMelo Ball? A Year 3 Leap for Darius Garland would all of a sudden make the Cleveland Cavaliers interesting in the bottom half of the east playoff picture. The Suns’ offense is already pretty great but capable third option Mikal Bridges would make them downright terrifying.

Can Malcolm Brogdon keep the Indiana Pacers afloat on the perimeter while Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren get healthy? Is Zach LaVine going to be able to do all the little winning things with much more help on the Chicago Bulls while still putting up the fantastic numbers? Did the New York Knicks mess with a winning formula too much by bringing in Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier? Can those two help develop R.J. Barrett or Obi Toppin into All-Stars? Hey Bradley Beal, time to prove you’re a star as “The Guy” for the Washington Wizards!

Zimmerman: Do Markus Howard and/or Bones Hyland make leaps with Jamal Murray rehabbing and away from the Nuggets? Anthony Edwards, king of the interview, not only proved he has All-Star potential as a scorer but has preseason hype as a much-improved defender — he could push Minnesota into competency despite all the offseason turmoil it’s gone through.

Also out west, I think the Warriors will get their Big Three some help: Jordan Poole and Otto Porter Jr. stock I’m buying, but I bet they can find G League Ignite product Jonathan Kuminga or second-year center James Wiseman useful in spurts. I will watch losing stuff to take in the young Rockets (Jalen Green, Josh Christopher, Alperen Sengun and Kevin Porter Jr.) and young Thunder (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort, Josh Giddey and Aleksej Pokusevski).

In the east, Cleveland has a cosmic gumbo of fun players, including guard Darius Garland, rookie Evan Mobley, hard-nosed Isaac Okoro, reclamation project Lauri Markkanen and former Sun Ricky Rubio. Thoughts go out to Jalen Suggs, a rookie of the year candidate who has to play on the Orlando Magic, which hopefully can help Markelle Fultz, Wendell Carter Jr. and Mo Bamba get tastes of stability for once.

And finally, let’s not forget the original Valley Boy, Kelly Oubre Jr., who gets a fresh start with a LaMelo Ball-led Hornets squad.

Award picks you cowards!

Olson –

Most valuable player: Joel Embiid

Rookie of the year: Jalen Green

Sixth man of the year: Patty Mills

Defensive player of the year: Joel Embiid

Most improved player: Michael Porter Jr.

Coach of the year: Monty Williams

Zimmerman –

Most valuable player: Kevin Durant

Rookie of the year: Jalen Green

Sixth man of the year: Jordan Clarkson

Defensive player of the year: Mikal Bridges (I will accept any perimeter player, just so we can rethink the voting here)

Most improved player: Terance Mann

Coach of the year: Steve Nash


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