With the NBA's Opening Night drawing near, here are 25 bold predictions for the upcoming 2020-21 season.
As you're about to see this season, "championship swagger" is a real thing. The role players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, etc. are going to play with a different kind of confidence than they previously possessed. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are going to play like they're the Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen of the NBA. That alone should always keep them in contention. But if that wasn't enough, the Lakers added some hungry players in their prime (Dennis Schröder, Montrezl Harrell) as well as some savvy veterans (Marc Gasol, Wes Matthews) that will keep their roster rejuvenated and fresh. Oh, and if the first few games of the preseason were any indication of what he might develop into, second-year guard Talen Horten-Tucker appears destined to be a stud. So long as LeBron and AD stay healthy, this team is going to mow over the rest of the league in 2020-21.
Here's a bold prediction you won't see in many other publications: The Heat will repeat as Eastern Conference champions. Many seem to think that last season's magical playoff run was more a product of their franchise stability and mental toughness inside the bubble. Wrong! Miami has the roster talent to compete with any team - there aren't many teams that have a better closing lineup than Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro, and Duncan Robinson. The Heat are also amorphous and can change playing styles to match or counter any opponent. Finally, they have one of the best coaches in the NBA ( Erik Spoelstra) and player development programs in the league, if not the best. This is a team on the rise!
No real shock here - the Bucks are going to dominate teams during the regular season. And the reasoning is pretty simple: Mike Budenholzer has an excellent system (his teams have posted a 73 percent or better winning rate in three of his seven seasons as a head coach) and they have a generational talent (Giannis Antetokounmpo) who is impossible to scheme against in the regular season. Expect the Bucks to win 50-55 games this regular season.
Unfortunately for Giannis, who will once again put up historically great numbers this season (and be a deserving MVP candidate once again), the Bucks' offseason tinkering, even with the addition of Jrue Holiday, won't be enough to lift them to the Finals for the third straight season. The Heat, Nets, and Sixers all have rosters that present the Bucks with problems. The Heat have a playing style to counter the Bucks and a Giannis-stopper (Bam Adebayo). The Nets have the offensive firepower to make mincemeat of any defense. And the Sixers have another player who can look Giannis in the eye (Joel Embiid) and play him to a near draw, plus a talented roster that actually has some floor spacers this season.
It may take Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and company some time to gel this season. After all, they have to learn the Steve Nash-Mike D'Antoni offense and adjust to the integration of Kevin Durant. Expect them to look incredible on certain nights and inconsistent on others. By the start of the playoffs, however, the team should have most of the kinks worked out and will strike the fear of God into their opponents. Don't be surprised if they cruise to the five or six-seed in the regular season, but then pull off multiple upsets on their way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Basketball fans were robbed of the Battle of LA in the 2020 Playoffs due to the Clippers' 3-1 collapse against the Nuggets. The 2021 Playoffs will give us that matchup, however, it won't be as climatic as we hoped for. For one, it'll be in the second as the Clippers will finish with the five-seed in the regular season. And two, the Lakers will beat them with relative ease unless the Clippers are able to make a significant upgrade during the season.
After last year's thrilling run to the Western Conference Finals, the Nuggets' arrow is pointing up. They have a young, but experienced roster led by one of the best big men and arguably the best passer in the league in Nikola Jokic. After his bubble performance, it's probably safe to start referring to Jamal Murray (26.5 PPG., 6.6 APG., 51-45-90 shooting splits in the 2020 playoffs) as a superstar as well. Assuming good health, it's probably also safe to assume that Michael Porter Jr. will be a 20 ppg. scorer in the next year or two (he averaged 22 PPG. in his seven seeding games in the bubble). The rest of the roster is full of talented players and good veterans as well. Expect Denver to be in the mix for the top of the West when it's all said and done in 2021.
The Blazers will have a clean bill of health this season (remember Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins missed most of the regular season) and the chemistry, continuity, and depth to contend for the best record in the league. They finally addressed their inconsistency at the wing position this offseason by adding Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. to the mix. Lastly, they have one of the 10 best players in the NBA (Damian Lillard) at his absolute apex as well as another star guard nearing his (CJ McCollum). They'll give opponents a fit every single night.
With only 72 games on the schedule this season, the playoff race in the West is going to resemble the 2015 playoffs where seeds two through seven were fluid until the last game of the season. So, while the Blazers might finish with the three-seed, it'll hardly be an upset if they lose to a dangerous Luka Doncic-led Mavericks team. That's because Doncic is going to win the MVP award this season. Voters will have some Giannis fatigue (especially after his back-to-back surprise playoff exits). LeBron and AD likely won't play enough games or minutes to match Doncic's stats. Ditto for KD. Harden won't get any votes after his offseason either. Everything is lining up for Luka Legend to continue his rise to the top of the NBA. If he can improve every so slightly on this shooting efficiency (46-32-76 shooting splits last season), and nudge his statistical brilliance up just a little (28.8 ppg., 9.4 RPG., 8.8 APG. last year), it will be more than enough to get him to the front of the line for his first of many MVP awards.
After leading the NBA in scoring the past three seasons, averaging an incredible 33.7 PPG. during that time, James Harden will lose his scoring crown this year. A couple of things will cause that to happen. For one, the Rockets are no longer playing the "Harden Ball" they played under Mike D'Antoni where the go-to play was an isolation at the top of the key. And second, and more importantly, it'll be because Harden will get traded...to the 76ers for Ben Simmons in the blockbuster trade of the season.
After reuniting with Daryl Morey, James Harden will play some of the best all-around basketball of his career and the Sixers will look like an absolute juggernaut heading into the postseason with the most unstoppable isolation (Harden) and post (Joel Embiid) players in the league. Unfortunately for Philly, the top of the East is absolutely loaded, so some championship-caliber teams are going to lose in the second round. Their late-developing chemistry will ultimately doom them down the stretch in another brutal Game 7 loss to either the Heat or Nets. All will not be lost, however, as Morey will do some tinkering in the offseason and set this team up to be the Eastern Conference favorites heading into 2021.
Though the Warriors do have a very enticing trade package with Minnesota's top-3 protected 2021 draft pick and James Wiseman, unless they trade both for another star, don't be shocked if you see them in the four-team play-in tournament at the end of the season. That's not intended to be an insult to Golden State or some hot take either - the Dubs have to overcome the loss of Klay Thompson in a loaded Western Conference. To guarantee themselves a spot in the playoffs, the Warriors will need to have a healthy Steph Curry and Draymond Green all season. In addition, they'll need Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre Jr., and probably even James Wiseman to play to the best of their capabilities. Otherwise, their lack of depth will get exposed and they'll be fighting for their playoff lives.
It's a fairly simple recipe for Washington - they have two All-NBA caliber guards in Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook. They have an elite shooter in Davis Bertans (42.4 percent from three on 8.7 attempts per game last year). They have a good young big man in Thomas Bryant (13.2 ppg., 7.2 rpg. last year). And they have solid young depth on the wings in Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown Jr., and rookie Deni Avdija. That's a recipe for at least a .500 team next season - remember, the seven and eight seeds were both under .500 in the East last season.
Chemistry and continuity are often the most important factors for a team during the regular season. Look no further than the success of last year's Kawhi-less Raptors. While both of those factors will play a large part in team success this season, no factor will play a larger role than depth this season. Whether it's a product of rest and injuries caused by the crammed schedule or coronavirus-related absences, you can expect a number of prominent players to miss a higher percentage of games than usual this season. Thus, expect teams with excellent depth, like the Lakers, Nuggets, Blazers, Bucks, and Heat to adjust best to the ever-changing circumstances and challenges this season will likely present.
Let's assume the season plays out like ESPN's Win-Loss projections...In the Eastern Conference, the play-in games would include the Pacers (last's year's four-seed), the Wizards (Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook), the new-look Hawks ( Trae Young and a bevy of talented, young running mates), and the Magic (let's hope LaMelo Ball and the Hornets make it over the Magic). In the Western Conference, the play-in games would include the Suns ( Devin Booker & CP3), the Pelicans (Zion!!), the Warriors (Steph!!), and the Grizzlies (Ja!!). I'd do just about anything to attend the Western Conference play-in games if those are the teams. The games won't likely be played in a bubble, but that'd make it even cooler.
Get ready for a leap from Ja Morant this season. Morant is coming off a season where he averaged 17.8 PPG. and 7.3 APG. on his way to winning the Rookie of the Year award. Those are better numbers than Derrick Rose had his rookie season (16.8 PPG. and 6.3 APG.). Expect Morant to be even more comfortable as a floor general and more aggressive with his ridiculous athleticism in his sophomore season.
When he was healthy last season, which wasn't very often (he only played 24 games), Zion Williamson was a borderline All-NBA player as he averaged 22.5 PPG., 6.3 APG., and shot 58.3 percent from the field. With a young, pretty talented team around him, it'd be wild if he made a huge statistical leap this season. And that's just fine - Zion has plenty of room for improvement on the defensive side of the ball. With Stan Van Gundy entering his first season with the Pelicans, I'd expect him to try to unleash Zion we saw on the defensive end at Duke before he does anything else.
The Lakers' finished second to Giannis in both the MVP vote (LeBron) and Defensive Player of the Year vote (AD), but ultimately got the last laugh when they won the title. This year, the voters will make it up to Anthony Davis and give him the benefit of the doubt as the league's best defensive player so long as he plays enough games and has his usual excellent defensive stats and impact. Davis averaged 2.3 BPG. and 1.5 SPG. last season to go along with an awesome 102 points per 100 possessions defensive rating - tied for the second-lowest of his career despite the continued league-wide rise in offensive rating per 100 possessions.
After enjoying an All-NBA leap last season, get ready for Jayson Tatum, who now apparently stands 6-foot-10, to take his game to an even higher level. With Gordon Hayward's departure and Kemba Walker's lingering knee injury, Tatum will be tasked with being the Celtics' primary playmaker and go-to scorer. If he can handle that kind of increase in usage, he'll have the stats and highlights to be a borderline MVP candidate.
While the NBA's league-wide pace seems to have plateaued a bit (it only went up to 100.3 possessions per game last year vs. 100.0 possessions per game in 2018-19), three-point attempts sure haven't (34.1 attempts per game last year vs. 32.0 attempts per game in 2018-19). And if three-point shooting continues to rise, you should expect that scoring will continue to rise as well (111.8 PPG. last season vs. 111.2 PPG. in 2018-19). Wahoo for more points - but if three-point attempts don't start to plateau soon, the NBA might want to re-examine the court a bit (e.g., moving the three-point line back, widening the court, narrowing the key, etc.).
Knicks fans will finally have something to be grateful for this season: Dayton rookie, Obi Toppin. Toppin should be ready to contribute immediately on offense for the Knicks this season as his skill set and athleticism is on that end of the court is somewhat reminiscent of Amar'e Stoudemire. In fact, his offensive skill set and maturity are so advanced compared to most of the rest of his rookie class, that his biggest obstacle to winning the award will be Tom Thibodeau and his obsession with defensive attention to detail - something Toppin was below-average at in college.
Every season there are a couple of frisky teams that unexpectedly contend for a playoff spot. This season, one of those teams will be the Spurs - a team that has been reluctant to embrace a full rebuild to its own detriment. While Gregg Popovich will probably continue to run things through archaic mid-range players like LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, the young guns like Lonnie Walker IV, Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and maybe even Devin Vassell are too good to justify keeping on the bench anymore. Having a stable of young, athletic guards and wings like that will help the Spurs compete on a nightly basis, no matter who is sick or injured. While they ultimately might not make the playoffs, I'd be quite surprised if they weren't at least in the play-in games after this year's 72-game regular-season sprint.
This is a bit of wishful thinking, but after seeing how quick John Wall looks in preseason action and how fluid and "normal" Kevin Durant looked in his long-awaited return to action, it seems as though science and technology have gotten us to a point where a ruptured Achilles no longer has to be an athlete's death sentence. If true, that's great news because NBA players seem to be injuring their Achilles tendons more and more every year. In addition to Wall and Durant, keep an eye on the returns of Rodney Hood and DeMarcus Cousins (although his was from 2018) - if all four of those players play like their old selves, it'll give us more hope that Klay Thompson will return to form next year...and we all know that the NBA is a better league with Klay Thompson in it.
Whether it's the Miami Heat discovering that they could counter the Pacers' and Spurs' traditional lineups by playing LeBron James at the four, or Steve Kerr realizing that he can play Draymond Green as a small ball five, or the Daryl Morey calculating that he can build an entire offensive system around James Harden's unstoppable isolation game, the NBA's best teams always find inefficiencies to exploit in their opponents. What is the game's next inefficiency? Well, I don't have access to the kinds of advance metrics that the Daryl Moreys of the league have, but my own two eyes tell me that there's an inefficiency waiting to be exploited around the basket. We just saw the Lakers dominant around the basket on their way to a title - destroying small ball teams like the Rockets and Heat in the process. They didn't do it by posting up all that much (AD and LeBron combined for 6.4 post-ups per game in the postseason), but they thrived in the paint and at the rim. Is there a certain play or matchup that other teams can replicate to get them similar opportunities? If there is, I'm sure Morey will figure out a way to exploit it with Embiid and Simmons this season.
Part of me feels bad for the T'Wolves - they're trying to build a winning team in Minnesota, but they're going to suck again this season because the West is so loaded. Part of me doesn't feel bad for the T'Wolves at all though. Whether it's the Jimmy Butler trade with Philly that yielded them Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless, and a second-round pick (that's literally it) or the D'Angelo Russell trade where they had to give up the aforementioned first-round pick or the decision to draft a risky no. 1 overall pick in Anthony Edwards over trading down and netting more assets (like, say, a 2021 first-round draft pick?) they can't help themselves from making stupid decisions. All this will lead to their franchise player, Karl-Anthony Towns, a superstar talent with a role player's personality, demanding a trade at the deadline or, at the latest, early next offseason. All the teams that saved up assets to make a run at Giannis will shift their strategy to KAT.