The Whiteboard: Predictions for NBA scoring leader, assist leader, best lineup and more

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In general, I tend to shy away from making preseason predictions about the NBA. I have no reason to think my insight or analysis is any more prescient than anyone else’s and putting a pin down on anything specific is more likely to be wrong than right when you’re talking about 82 games for 30 teams and roughly 500 players. Still, in the interests of promoting conversation and keeping this daily newsletter full and robust, I’m going to give it a shot this year.

I’m still working on predictions for team win totals and awards but I thought I’d warm up with a few more esoteric categories for the upcoming 2021-22 NBA season: scoring leader, assist leader, turnover leader and best lineup.

Your 2021-22 NBA scoring leader will be: Damian Lillard

Lillard finished third in the NBA in scoring last season, trailing both Stephen Curry and Bradley Beal at 28.8 points per game. The season before that, he hit the 30-point plateau for the first time in his career, averaging 30.0 behind Beal and James Harden. Lillard has never won a scoring title but over the past few seasons he’s been peaking in terms of both volume and efficiency and circumstances may winnow the field in front of him.

Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden will be sharing the ball. The same scenario would seem to lower the odds for Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. Stephen Curry, who won last year, will be accomodating the return of Klay Thompson. Joel Embiid is a threat but also fragile. Beal is a threat but he’s also unvaccinated which could become an ongoing issue for his availability — even if he’s not testing positive, quarantine times for exposure for unvaccinated players is longer. Devin Booker and Giannis Antetokounmpo may have some pressure off after making the Finals.

Meanwhile, Lillard is coming off a tumultuous offseason that has only raised the stakes for him. He has committed, at least for now, to winning in Portland and, as it has for the past few years, making that work mostly comes down to him. He has talent and skill, motive and opportunity. He’s my pick.

Your 2021-22 NBA assist leader will be: Trae Young

With Russell Westbrook moving to the Lakers, I think this category basically comes down to Trae Young and Luka Doncic. Young has finished second in each of the last two years and he simply has far more help than Doncic — both in terms of high-quality shooters and finishers to pass to and complementary scorers to allow him to throttle off on his own individual scoring. In each of the past four seasons, we’ve seen just one player finish averaging double-digit assists. My guess is Trae Young makes it five in a row this season and walks away with the assist crown by a decent margin.

Your 2021-22 NBA turnover leader will be: Luka Doncic

Doncic is in a tough spot this year. The Mavericks have a new coach, one who seems likely to encourage Doncic to take as much control of the offense as he can. Some of that is a reflection of his skill but a lot of it is the lack of depth on a team whose second-best scorers are Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr.

Doncic already led the league in time of possession last season and some of the players who finished around him — Young, Harden and Westbrook — may have the ball in their hands a bit less this season. He also had tremendous pressure to create on his own, finishing a combined 17.8 possessions per game in isolation or as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll and singlehandedly creating 35 percent of the team’s potential assists all season long. Doncic also finished second to Westbrook in turnovers per game with 4.3.

More time with the ball in his hands and more offensive responsibility means more potential for turnovers.

The best lineup for the 2021-22 NBA season will be: Stephen Curry – Klay Thompson – Otto Porter Jr. — Andre Iguodala — Draymond Green

The best lineup is very different from the best team — even the most frequently used lineups last season rarely were on the court together for more than 15 minutes per game. But an unstoppable lineup can often set the table for a team, giving structure to their season and capturing our imaginations.

Last year’s best lineup (min. 200 minutes) was the Donovan Mitchell – Joe Ingles – Royce O’Neale – Bojan Bogdanovic – Rudy Gobert unit for the Utah Jazz, who outscored opponents by an average of 19.6 points per 100 possessions and helped power Utah’s surge to the No. 1 seed in the West. The year before that was a bit of a preview with Ricky Rubio – Devin Booker – Mikal Bridges – Kelly Oubre Jr. – Deandre Ayton as the league’s best unit, and one that played a key role in last year’s Finals with Chris Paul and Jae Crowder swapped in.

This is not the unstoppable Death Lineup we remember with Kevin Durant on the Warriors but I’m going out on a limb here. First, Iguodala is going to be a bit deeper in the Warriors rotation and so this lineup is going to be used less frequently, which I think ups its chances of performing extremely well. And while Otto Porter Jr. is no Kevin Durant, he’s still a capable, versatile defender who has made 40.2 percent of his career 3-pointers. This lineup is only going to be something the Warriors use in tight games against specific matchups but the combination of chemistry, experience, shooting and defensive upside makes it too interesting to ignore.

#OtherContent

Last week, the Minnesota Timberwolves fired GM Gersson Rosas. It was the latest move to showcase the franchise’s instability, but could it be a blessing in disguise?

We’re rolling out our annual ranking of the best young players in the NBA this week. Remember to check out the full 25-under-25 list and follow along as we count our way down to the top.

And make sure to check out our profiles for the first players, announced today:

Bryan Harvey on Jamal Murray (No. 15), and what happens when he is finally healthy.

Bryan Toporek on Michael Porter Jr. (No. 14), who simply can’t stop getting buckets.

Ben Ladner on John Collins (No. 13), who has become one of the best offensive big men in the NBA.

Micah Wimmer on LaMelo Ball (No. 12), who is adding experience to his endless creativity.

And me on OG Anunoby (No. 12), and the quest for legit two-way stardom.

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