The NBA pre-season is churning along nicely at the moment, meaning the start of the regular season is just around the corner.

So we thought we’d take a look at the main contenders, and potential dark horses ahead of the brand new campaign.

We’ll start by taking a look at the top three betting favourites from each conference.

 

Eastern Conference

Brooklyn Nets – 9/4

Brooklyn Nets star James Harden

The favourites for the championship this year are, unsurprisingly, the Brooklyn Nets.

Last year they fell short, losing to the eventual-champions the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semi-finals – and that was without James Harden (above) and Kyrie Irving.

So logic has it that the Nets, in the first full season with their three stars together, would be the favourites to win the 2022 chip.

However, it seems unlikely that will be the case as Kyrie Irving looks to be ruled out for the entire season. The Nets have said he won’t play for the team until he is eligible to become “a full participant” under New York City Covid-19 vaccine rules, as Irving is currently unvaccinated but  regulations state all athletes who play or practice in NY have to be vaccinated.

 

Milwaukee Bucks – 8/1

Another contender from the East is of course, the defending champions – the Milwaukee Bucks.

After winning their first title since 1971, this will be the shortest offseason in Bucks’ history, and the question will be can they adapt? They’ll need to ease back the big guns (mainly Giannis Antetokounmpo) and maximise the roles of the bench players.

Two key players – Kris Middleton and Jrue Holiday – competed in the Tokyo Olympics after winning the title in July, and the aforementioned Antetokounmpo (above) has been doing the heavy lifting in Milwaukee for several years.

There was an element of ‘luck’ in their road to victory last season, as there is with every championship triumph.

But if it wasn’t for injuries to key rival players (James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Trae Young, Chris Paul), and if Kevin Durant wore a smaller sneaker size (that on-the-line shot that tied rather than won Game 7 for Brooklyn in the conference semi-finals), you could argue the Bucks would have never even made it to the Finals.

It will be interesting to see if they can go back-to-back.

 

Philadelphia 76ers – 16/1

Next in the betting from the Eastern Conference is the Philadelphia 76ers.

And to be honest, their season depends on what happens with Ben Simmons.

After finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference last season, the Philadelphia 76ers suffered a flameout in the conference semi-finals so fateful that it looked likely lead to the break up of the team’s All-Star tandem of Joel Embiid (above) and Ben Simmons.

Simmons didn’t take a single shot from outside the paint in the entire postseason, passed out of an easy layup late in Game 7 against Atlanta and reportedly told the team that he wants out of Philly.

So the Sixers began pre-season with the future of Simmons hanging over them, but as I write this, it looks increasingly likely that Simmons will start the season in Philadelphia.

He reportedly showed up unannounced at the Wells Fargo Center ahead of their pre-season victory over the Brooklyn Nets.

But there are still some questions that need answering; can the organisation put this rift behind them and focus on winning a chip? Will Simmons be all-in on this team, or will he still demand a trade before the deadline?

 

Western Conference

Los Angeles Lakers – 7/2

The betting favourite out of the Western Conference is the Los Angeles Lakers.

Perhaps the biggest move of the offseason was the arrival of Russel Westbrook in L.A. There’s no guarantee that Westbrook will be the missing piece but the Lakers are clearly trying to maximise the remaining years of LeBron James (above), who has already delivered a title to Los Angeles.

Injuries hurt them last year when Anthony Davis went down, but the added veteran experience of Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard gives them some solid rotation options.

Similar to the Nets, the key to the Lakers’ season is making sure their ‘big three’ of James, Davis and Westbrook are healthy come play-off time.

 

Golden State Warriors – 10/1

Next in the betting is the Golden State Warriors – probably the biggest wildcard of the lot.

The Warriors obviously hope to return to contender status, but much of that may rest on the health of Klay Thompson.

Thompson has suffered two major injuries in two years, meaning he hasn’t physically been on the court since the Warriors lost in the 2019 Finals against the Toronto Raptors.

Given the limited cap room the Warriors had, they’ve waited eagerly for Thompson to return.

Stephen Curry (above) was arguably the best player in the league last year, and whilst he led the league in scoring, it wasn’t enough to bring this team to the play-offs.

Thompson isn’t expected to be back until around November time, so in the meanwhile, one of the Warriors’ role-players will have to fill that void – and Jordan Poole has being doing just that in pre-season.

 

Utah Jazz – 14/1

Surprisingly, the Jazz had the best regular-season record in the West last year, although ultimately, that counts for nothing if you don’t perform in the post-season.

They lost in the Western Conference semi-finals last season, and they’ve got virtually the same team heading into the new campaign, spearheaded by All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell.

Mitchell, along with Mike Conley, Rudy Gobert and Jordan Clarkson, earned various awards and accolades last season, and, with the exception of Conley, they’re still developing as players.

This team sems to live and die by the 3-point shot – but will that be enough for them? Their inability to mix it up last year looks to have cost them, and they won’t want to make the same mistake again.

 

Outsiders?

Phoenix Suns – 16/1

The Suns are looking to bounce back from their defeat in the Finals last year, with veteran point guard Chris Paul leading the way.

The Suns didn’t need a roster tinkering in the offseason, which says plenty about their makeup and ability to make a return trip to the championship round. A backcourt of Chris Paul and Devon Booker, mixed with a supporting cast of the likes of Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder and Mikal Bridges is probably as good as it gets in the league.

Similarly to the Bucks, they had some good fortune on route to the Finals last year, so where exactly do they rank amongst the other elite teams?

With that being said, they don’t have any glaring weaknesses, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they made it back to the Finals this season.

 

Miami Heat – 20/1

Jimmy Butler LeBron James

After a surprise appearance in the 2020 Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Miami Heat seemed to take a backwards step last season.

They had a similar regular-season record to the season prior, but there was no post-season fairy tale this time.

However, they’ve had one of the best off-seasons in terms of free agency, winning the bidding war for Kyle Lowry and prising P.J. Tucker away from Milwaukee.

Defensively, they look set. It’s just the offence that looks to be the problem. But with the firepower of Jimmy Butler (above, left) and Bam Adebayo, they should have enough to make a deep post-season run.

 

Dallas Mavericks – 25/1

This one is a long shot but bear with me.

The Mavs have suffered back-to-back first round play-off exits, and with a superstar like Luka Doncic in their ranks, it isn’t anywhere near good enough.

But those early exits have led to a bigger shakeup in the offseason, with long-time president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson and coach Rick Carlisle both resigning after a 13-year run in Dallas.

Maybe that’s just what they needed?

Dallas focused on guards in free agency to build around Doncic, adding veterans such as Frank Ntilikina, Reggie Bullock and Sterling Brown, in addition to re-signing shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr.

The new regime of Jason Kidd (head coach) and Nico Harrison (general manager and president of basketball operations) also needs to find a way to improve the on-court chemistry between Doncic and former All-Star Kristaps Porzingis, because the Mavericks go only as far this season as the duo takes them.

 

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