Only two months after the Los Angeles Lakers were crowned as champions inside the bubble, a new NBA season arrives with the league returning to home arenas. The NBA is set to play a condensed 72-game schedule as the global pandemic continues to rage on, though there’s hope that the vaccine will be widely distributed in the coming months.
This was the shortest offseason in league history for teams that made a deep playoff run in the bubble. Meanwhile, the teams that didn’t qualify for the season restart haven’t played since March. With superstars like Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry returning after missing all of last season, it feels like so much of this year is unknowable. What we do know going into the season is that the Lakers are strong favorites to repeat.
Before the 2020-2021 NBA regular season gets underway, we asked our staff to predict how this year will go. Picks are being made by writers Sabreena Merchant, Sydney Umeri, Ameer Tyree, Ricky O’Donnell, and Brady Klopfer.
Who will be the No. 1 seed in the West?
Sabreena: The Lakers. At the risk of taking too much away from the preseason, seeing the Lakers scrape and claw to win all four exhibitions makes me think this team has so many non-LeBron players who want to prove something this season. That depth will be hard to contend with during the regular season.
Ricky: The Nuggets. While their defense should take a hit without Jerami Grant, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. leveling up could mean the Nuggets have the No. 1 offense in the league. With the Lakers and Clippers likely prioritizing rest in the regular season, Denver seems an obvious candidate to jump up to the top seed.
Sydney: The Lakers. While different than last year, the Lakers kept many of their core pieces and substituted them where necessary. With LeBron and AD having great chemistry on-and-off the court, Montrezl Harrell, the reigning 6th Man of the Year filling the spot of Dwight Howard, and the exciting and surprising Talen Horton-Tucker emerging as a force, I think they will be pretty hard to beat.
Brady: The Nuggets. Denver is the only top team in the West that doesn’t have obstacles to overcome. They don’t have a new coach and system like the Clippers. They won’t be resting their top players like the Lakers. They don’t have as much roster turnover as the Mavericks. They have continuity, and can score 120 points in their sleep.
Ameer: The Los Angeles Lakers were favored to win it all after acquiring Anthony Davis and a slew of veterans last season and have made upgrades at multiple positions. LeBron James and AD will do most of the heavy lifting but last year’s top two Sixth Man of the Year candidates — Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell — will set the reigning champs over the top.
True or false: the Bucks will make the NBA Finals this season.
Sydney: False. The Giannis fan in me wants that to be true, for his sake, but the East is too talented, and I can see Milwaukee making an early playoff exit yet again. Boston, Miami, Brooklyn, and Toronto all have the opportunity to give the Bucks a good run heading into the finals, and unfortunately, I do not think they have what it takes to make it to the finals.
Ricky: False. It would be a great story to see Giannis Antetokounmpo breakthrough to the Finals after committing to Milwaukee long-term, but Mike Budenholzer’s curious playoff decisions and a serious lack of depth are real question marks. It’s true that the Bucks could have an easier path through the postseason this year — the Heat were the worst possible matchup — but I’ll go with the field in the East over Milwaukee.
Sabreena: False. I don’t think the Bucks addressed their weakness of creating offense in the half court with the Jrue Holiday trade, and Mike Budenholzer is still the worst coast atop the East, even if we don’t what Steve Nash is like in this role yet. There’s no reason why the Bucks can’t be a regular-season juggernaut again, but I’ll be thinking about what Bogdan Bogdanovic would have looked like on this team for a long time.
Brady: False. I think the Bucks would be my prediction to win the East, as I really like the Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday fit. But you have to be really good to be favored over the field, and the Bucks postseason foibles don’t allow for that benefit of the doubt.
Ameer: False. I’d believe Milwaukee had it the Bogdan Bogdanovic trade. Adding a player with Jrue Holiday’s defensive versatility to a team anchored by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton is significant, but I’m skeptical about how a off-ball guard rotation of Donte DiVincenzo and Brynn Forbes will pan out. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bucks were the top team in the Eastern Conference for the regular season, but I’m not buying them as a contender.
James Harden trade during this season: 76ers or the field?
Sabreena: 76ers. I don’t think a team is offering a better player than Ben Simmons. Daryl Morey has boldly proclaimed that he wouldn’t trade a player before and backtracked very quickly, and he loves James Harden way too much to not pull the trigger later this season once Houston’s asking price has come down. Simmons, Tyrese Maxey, and a sweetener should get the job done.
Ricky: The field. If Houston hangs onto Harden through the year, Philly seems like the most natural trade partner with Ben Simmons going back to the Rockets. But after Daryl Morey’s strong statement that he isn’t trading Simmons, it’s hard to see how that deal goes during this season.
Sydney: The field. I don’t think Harden will end this season as a Rocket, but I doubt he will end it as a Sixer either. To get Harden, the Sixers would have to give up so much, Embiid or Simmons and possibly more. I’m not sure trading away one or more foundational players is the best way to go in exchange for a star that might not be in Philly for the long haul.
Brady: The field. I agree with Ricky that Philly will be the favorite next offseason if Harden makes it through the season without switching teams. But the Sixers are trying out a new coach in Doc Rivers to see if they can make their exciting young core work. I don’t see them abandoning that after a few weeks. Also, Daryl Morey has long been in the business of hoarding draft picks, not dishing them out; I’m not convinced he’d meet Houston’s price.
Ameer: It doesn’t seem like Philadelphia is willing to budge on Simmons but several other Eastern Conference teams looking to make a leap are willing to fork up the necessary assets to acquire Harden. I’m not sure whether it’ll be the Nets, Raptors, or another team that has yet to make itself known as a suitor, but players like Harden aren’t up for grabs often.
Who’s your MVP pick?
Ameer: Luka Doncic cracked the top 20 in points, rebounds and assists last season and is the odds-on favorite to win MVP on plenty of sportsbooks. It’ll be hard for the third-year star to ascend to a higher level but playing without Kristaps Porzingis to start the 2020-21 season can only benefit him. The 21-year-old finished fourth in MVP voting last year. LeBron, AD, and Antetokounmpo getting more help can only improve Doncic’s case.
Ricky: Anthony Davis. An MVP is the one thing missing on Davis’ resume at this point. With LeBron likely waiting until the playoffs to unleash the totality of his talent, Davis should emerge as the Lakers’ representative for the award. After losing out on Finals MVP to LeBron last season, I wouldn’t be surprised if voters give AD a make-up call here.
Sydney: Giannis Antetokounmpo. Yes, again. He is spectacular and truly a force on the court, but also, he is healthy and on the hunt for a championship. If the Bucks do not get a title this year, it won’t be because Giannis didn’t move heaven and Earth to get them one. Throughout the season, his body of work will be a testament to that and will earn him MVP status for the third year in a row.
Brady: LeBron James. This is a pick that will look foolish the first time James does some managing of the load. But after his performance in the bubble, he enters the season as the consensus best player in the world. It’s easier to retain a belt than to steal it. Excluding the bizarre and arguably inappropriate Kobe Bryant storyline, all the narratives that media members used to justify MVP votes for ‘Bron last year will still be present this season. He’s got the belt and the narrative.
Sabreena: Luka Doncic. I think Giannis will be deserving of the award, but I can’t see the voters making him the winner for the third consecutive year, especially since he hasn’t yet won a title. Meanwhile, Doncic will be the alpha and omega for this Mavericks team, especially when Kristaps Porzingis is out to start the year. He’ll be able to pad his stats to an otherworldly total. Doncic will also play more minutes than some of the older MVP candidates, and his coronation will be the perfect conclusion of his breakout performance in the bubble.
Who’s your Rookie of the Year pick?
Ricky: LaMelo Ball. His shooting percentages might be trash, and the Hornets likely won’t win much, but Ball clearly has 20x the starpower of anyone else in this rookie class. He’ll win the award on highlights alone.
Sabreena: James Wiseman. This is another award where voters like raw counting stats, which favors point guards, but LaMelo Ball probably won’t be starting, and Killian Hayes doesn’t exactly have an offense geared towards him in Detroit. I thought about Tyrese Haliburton, but he’ll also be coming off the bench, so Wiseman is the pick for now. He’ll get some shine for playing in a winning situation, and he’ll get a ton of easy buckets and rebounds to pad his box scores.
Sydney: LaMelo Ball. His upside is huge, and he is extremely fun to watch. LaMelo is the Ball brother I can’t help but cheer for. I want to see him be great, and on the Hornets team, he has ample opportunity to do so.
Brady: LaMelo Ball. I think James Wiseman will be the most impactful rookie, but Ball is tailor made for the award. He’ll play 30+ minutes a night, have the ball in his hands, put up gaudy numbers (as long as efficiency and plus-minus aren’t your cup of tea), and be a staple on the nightly Top 10.
Ameer: LaMelo Ball might be at a disadvantage because he’ll kick off his NBA career as a bench player but I think he has the best case for ROY. No other lottery pick is even close to being the top option on their respective teams but Ball’s all-around game and flashy play will make it hard to keep him out of the conversation. No rookie has more triple-double potential than Ball in my opinion.
One player who will make an All-NBA team for the first time
Ricky: Devin Booker. Booker probably isn’t the best player on his own team anymore with the arrival of Chris Paul, but for the first time in his career the Phoenix Suns should be in the playoffs. Booker showed phenomenal progress during the Suns’ undefeated streak in the bubble. If he keeps it up and Phoenix grabs a spot in the middle of the West playoff picture, the individual accolades will come.
Sabreena: Bam Adebayo. I was tempted to say none, but where’s the fun? Adebayo’s another player who is heading into this season with a lot of momentum thanks to the bubble, and if the Heat finish near the top of the East standings, Adebayo will get a lot o credit.
Sydney: Zion Williamson. Spending most of his rookie season out with an injury, I believe Zion will have more than a few votes this year that will land him on an All-NBA team for the first, and probably not the last, time in his young career.
Brady: Zion Williamson. He’s already one of the league’s best players. Finding space for another forward on the team is always difficult, but he’ll use his superhuman strength to force his way in.
Ameer: The Atlanta Hawks had a tremendous offseason and Trae Young will be running the show after averaging an impressive 29.6 points and 9.3 assists per contest in his sophomore season. I think an All-NBA guard spot could be up for grabs now that Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal have joined forces and Chris Paul has teamed up with Devin Booker. If the Hawks creep into the playoff picture it’ll be hard to deny a player with Trae’s numbers.
Which team will finish with the lowest winning percentage?
Sydney: The Cavs. They are young and don’t know what kind of a team they are going to be. The team needs true veteran leadership. Given how young they are, this looks like another building year. A year to get their younger players reps and hopefully land a nice spot in the draft lottery.
Brady: The Knicks. There’s some intrigue in the Knicks young pieces, but they’re gonna rely on RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin to score, play Austin Rivers way too much, play Mitchell Robinson far too little, and have Tom Thibodeau demolish every player’s confidence on a nightly basis. It’ll be fun, in that same way that a Hallmark holiday movie is.
Sabreena: The Thunder. They play in the tougher conference, their bench is absurdly weak, and they’re likely to dump some pieces at the trade deadline to make the team even worse later in the year.
Ameer: The New York Knicks’ best player was Julius Randle last season and they elected to chose a backup for him in the lottery this year. They haven’t addressed their need for a point guard and I can’t see this team being better with teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Hawks again. The Detroit Pistons are a close second but a healthier Blake Griffin paired with Derrick Rose and a few experienced veterans is more appealing than any combination of Knicks players for me.
Ricky: The Thunder. There are actually some good players in Oklahoma City this year — Al Horford! George Hill! Trevor Ariza! Shai Gilgeous-Alexander! — but it’s likely several of them are traded in-season as the Thunder are fully committed to a rebuild. Half the roster looks like a G League team.
Which of these teams will finish with the highest winning percentage: Heat, 76ers, Raptors, Celtics
Brady: The Raptors. I wasn’t here for the Raptors disrespect a year ago, and I’m not here for it now. Until Kyle Lowry starts slowing down, Toronto should still be near the top of the East. Boston should be comfortably better in the postseason, but the loss of Gordon Hayward and injury to Kemba Walker will hurt them in the standings.
Sydney: The 76ers. I’m trusting the process and going with Philly. That’s if they don’t trade away any of their major players. With a new front office, new head coach, and a roster more suited to highlight and strengthen Embiid and Simmons, I think they will have a solid year and will be tough for other teams to handle.
Sabreena: The Heat. This team is the most complete of the four, assuming Kemba Walker misses significant time, and they just know how to play together now after the bubble run. They’ll get off to a faster start, giving them a little breathing room at the end of the year.
Ameer: Miami has the same nucleus it won a championship with last year and I don’t expect them to have to make many adjustments. The Toronto lost two key bigs while Boston parted with Gordon Hayward. The like the Heat to finish third behind the Nets and Bucks.
Ricky: Raptors. Toronto won nine more games than the Heat last year, 10 more games than the Sixers, and five more games than the Celtics (who start this season without Kemba Walker). While I do think Toronto got a little bit worse over the offseason after losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, you can bet on Nick Nurse finding a way to win them a lot of games.
Which of these teams will finish with the highest winning percentage: Trail Blazers, Jazz, Suns, Warriors
Sydney: The Jazz. They have all the pieces to make this season a good one. Donovan Mitchell is back. Rudy Golbert is also back. They have also added a few new additions to the team, but overall they have the chance to pick up where they left off last season and sore.
Brady: The Warriors. I think Utah might be the safe pick here, but the NBA is still a league driven by superstars, and the Warriors have one of the very best. Golden State will go as for as Steph Curry will take them, and that is usually pretty far.
Sabreena: The Blazers. I really like Portland’s depth after this offseason, and that will make them a tough out every night in the regular season. The Blazers have also finished third or eighth each of the past four seasons, and this feels more like a third-place team than one eking its way into the playoffs again.
Ameer: The Jazz took a major step forward by adding Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency last offseason and could benefit from having a healthy Mike Conley this year. Utah improved its backcourt depth by retaining Jordan Clarkson and added Derrick Favors to the frontcourt rotation. It had same record as last year’s fourth seed I can’t see any of the other team’s mentioned knocking them down a peg at full strength.
Ricky: Jazz. While I was extremely tempted to pick the Suns here, Utah just seems like a safer bet overall. They won nine more games than anyone else in this group last year and brought back basically the entire roster. Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert is a pretty damn good 1-2 punch.
What’s the Nets’ ceiling as presently constructed?
Sabreena: NBA champ. The last time Kevin Durant played, he was unguardable, and the rest of the offensive talent on the Nets is pretty impressive, too. There’s a chance they’re simply too explosive for any defense in the league.
Ricky: Conference champion. KD looked awesome in the preseason coming back from the torn Achilles, and there’s more depth here than people realize. I do have questions about the defense, and I doubt they could beat the Lakers in a seven-game series, but an NBA Finals run wouldn’t surprise me.
Sydney: First round of the playoffs. The Nets are looking good right now, but it’s so early. They have to stay healthy, and they have to get along, specifically Kyrie and KD. Health is the most important, but we have all seen what it is like when KD and Kyrie do not get along with their teammates. It’s not pretty.
Brady: NBA champion. Do I think it will happen? No. But they have arguably the greatest scorer in NBA history, next to one of the best scorers in the league, surrounded by shooters. The sky is the limit, even if there’s a high chance of it exploding.
Ameer: The Nets are built like a powerhouse team. While many are skeptical about their defense I feel like their depth on offense is enough to take them to the NBA Finals. If Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are healthy for the most part Brooklyn can reach the final stage.
Pick one for NBA champion: Lakers or the field.
Ricky: Lakers. Part of this is because I consistently picked against the Lakers last year and they made me look dumb as hell. Part of this is because they (probably?) upgraded a roster that already looked dominant in the bubble. While their shooting might take a step back, the defense will be as good as ever. As long as LeBron and AD stay healthy, the Lakers are clearly the team to beat.
Sydney: The field. The Lakers are talented, but it is hard to repeat. LeBron and AD will put on a show for sure, but something tells me a team from the East will take it from them this year.
Brady: The field. This is nothing against the Lakers, but the field is almost always the right pick. There are too many championship-caliber squads to give a team relying an a player in his 18th season and an injury-prone big man more than a coin’s flip chance.
(Sabreena refuses to tempt fate)
Ameer: Only a major midseason trade could make me think there’s a team capable of knocking off the new-and-improved Lakers. Short layoff or not, Los Angeles has the best roster in the Western Conference and has a good chance to repeat as champs barring any major injuries or blockbuster deals.
Give me your hottest take for a preseason prediction
Brady: Jayson Tatum takes the age leap and is no longer 19 years old when the season ends. More seriously, I’ll say that the Western Conference Finals will include a team that isn’t the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, or Mavericks.
Ameer: My hot take preseason prediction is that Ben Simmons will make more than 20 three pointers this season. We haven’t seen tape of him shooting from range at open gyms this offseason but I’m buying that he would’ve been willing to attempt more heaves from deep in the playoffs had he not suffered a season-ending knee injury. Daryl Morey’s influence has to come into play here after leaving a Houston Rockets team that hoisted more threes than anyone.
Ricky: I know I pegged AD for MVP, but I want to throw out a YOLO (people still say that, right?) pick for Nikola Jokic to win Most Valuable Player. If the Nuggets get the No. 1 seed and finish with the top overall offense, he should have a terrific case.