WASHINGTON (AFP) – Giannis Antetokounmpo chases another title, the Brooklyn Nets move on without Kyrie Irving and LeBron James unveils his new supporting cast when the 2021-22 NBA season begins Tuesday.
The NBA’s 75th anniversary campaign tips off with the Brooklyn Nets at Milwaukee as NBA Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP) Antetokounmpo and the rest of the Bucks raise the club’s first championship banner since 1971.
The Greek superstar, a two-time NBA MVP, averaged 30.2 points, 12.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.2 blocked shots and 1.0 steals a game last year in the playoffs as the Bucks ended a half-century title drought.
Milwaukee will try to become the first NBA champion from the Eastern Conference to repeat since James led Miami to titles in 2012 and 2013 as the league aims for its first full 82-game per club campaign since 2018-19 after consecutive seasons shortened due to Covid-19.
The Nets have been part of the NBA off-season’s biggest drama with the loss of Irving for refusing to have a Covid-19 vaccination.
City regulations in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco forbid attending large indoor public gatherings without being vaccinated, meaning Irving could not play in Nets home games and would miss most of Brooklyn’s regular-season contests.
“I chose to be unvaccinated and that was my choice and I ask y’all just to respect that choice,” Irving said. “I’m going to stay in shape, be ready to play, be ready to rock out with my teammates and just be part of this whole thing.”
As a result, the Nets decided the star guard will not be part of the team at all rather than be available on a part-time basis.
Brooklyn still offers formidable talent with two-time NBA champion and 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant up front and 2018 MVP and three-time scoring champion James Harden in the Nets backcourt.
Patty Mills, an NBA champion with San Antonio in 2014, signed with the Nets in August after sparking the Australia Boomers to a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics. The 33-year-old guard from Canberra could see more minutes with Irving absent.
“When you lose a talent as great as Kyrie, we have to be tighter, we have to be more connected, we have to have guys play bigger roles and be more responsible with the details,” Nets coach Steve Nash said.
“No one is going to come in and imitate Kyrie. So how can we make up for his loss as best as possible? Through all the collective work we do… coming together and really building a team.”
– ‘Going to take a minute’ –
The NBA season’s opening night also features James and the revamped Los Angeles Lakers playing host to the Golden State Warriors.
Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and the rest of the Warriors hope to welcome back guard Klay Thompson from an Achilles tendon injury in December or January.
The Lakers have surrounded James and Anthony Davis with a new collection of talent, including Russell Westbrook, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, Trevor Ariza, Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn and Carmelo Anthony.
The hope is to try and recapture the magic that produced a championship in the Covid-19 bubble last year. The Lakers lost to Phoenix in the first round of last season’s playoffs.
“It’s going to take a minute for us to become the team we know we’re capable of being,” James said. “It’s all about being patient with the process, understanding that we’re going to have frustrating moments.
“Nothing is worth having if it’s not worth working for.”
James, a four-time NBA MVP, is chasing his fifth NBA crown. He will turn 37 in December but remains a skilled scorer and passing threat.
“Nothing he does surprises me,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said.
– Simmons back with 76ers –
The Philadelphia 76ers, last season’s Eastern Conference top seeds, lost to Atlanta in the second round of the playoffs and have had to contend with Australian guard Ben Simmons sitting out pre-season workouts until Sunday.
“The next step is getting him integrated with the team,” said 76ers coach Doc Rivers, who declared Simmons in “decent shape” but not “game shape.”
With Simmons back in the fold alongside star big man Joel Embiid, Philadelphia again figures to be a team to beat in the East.
The 76ers open Wednesday at New Orleans with the host Pelicans troubled by their own missing star in Zion Williamson, out with a broken right foot suffered in the off-season.
Williamson averaged 27.0 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists a game last season for the Pelicans, who plan to give the big man more tests in two weeks to determine his status.
Utah and Phoenix, the only teams to win 50 games last season, improved in the off-season.