NBA Preview 2020-21: A Quick Review

Well, that was fast!  Part of me is not ready for more basketball but, let’s be honest, having no break from watching NBA games is preferable to watching reruns and various other available entertainment fare.  The NBA looks mostly similar to the league we were left with a few months ago.  Since the new season is upon on so quickly, we are going to do some abbreviated previews/predictions. 

Eastern Conference

1. Milwaukee Bucks

2. Miami Heat

3. Philadelphia 76ers

4. Brooklyn Nets

5. Boston Celtics

6. Toronto Raptors

7. Indiana Pacers

8. Washington Wizards

9. Orlando Magic

10.  Atlanta Hawk

11.  Charlotte Hornets

12. Chicago Bulls

13.  New York Knicks

14. Cleveland Cavaliers

15. Detroit Pistons

I’m less pessimistic about the Bucks’ playoff failures than most.  The loss to Toronto in 2018-19 was a mild upset and was largely fueled by the fact that Kawhi Leonard was better than Giannis Antetokounmpo.  Last year, the Bucks were outplayed by an inferior Heat team that played harder and turned the Bucks into a perimeter team.  That’s a concern but in the Bubble there were some clear unique extenuating circumstances with COVID, the Bubble, and social issues all at play.  In the end, Giannis is still very young and still the best player in the NBA.  There are questions as to whether there are enough shooters to protect Giannis but momentum is moving in the Bucks favor (more accurately, the momentum of Giannis’ development is moving in the right direction).

At the moment, Miami, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Boston, and Toronto are bunched up talent-wise and could finish in any order.  Miami is well-coached and talented but that great playoff run felt, if not fluky, sui generis.  It’s hard to see them doing quite as well in a more normal playoff environment (though it’s not clear how normal things will be in April/May). Brooklyn has the most upside of the group based on the presence of Kevin Durant but may be in the market for a major trade too. Boston and Toronto remain good teams but Boston lost pieces (Gordon Hayward and, maybe, Kemba Walker) without improving and you figure Kyle Lowry’s decline has to start some time.

The Pacers are unique in that they stand alone.  They should be better than the blah teams below them but are still markedly below the top five.  Below the Pacers, someone has to take the tenth slot.  It is possible that good effort coaches like Billy Donovan (Bulls) and Tom Thibodeau (Knicks) could get their teams to over perform and sneak into that slot.  Charlotte, though, has more actual talent and should eke in.

Watching a Cleveland/Detroit game this year sounds like the definition of malaise.

Western Conference

1. Los Angeles Clippers

2. Los Angeles Lakers

3. Denver Nuggets

4. Dallas Mavericks

5. Utah Jazz

6. Houston Rockets

7.  Phoenix Suns

8. Portland Trail Blazers

9.  New Orleans Hornets

10.  Golden State Warriors 

11.  Memphis Grizzlies

12.  Minnesota Timberwolves

13.  Sacramento Kings

14.  San Antonio Spurs

15.  Oklahoma City Thunder

The Lakers and Clippers remain the class of the conference.  As with Lowry, LeBron James is getting up there in age.  As supernatural as he is, he will have to sit more and still may have some decline.  That fact coupled with the Clippers’ strong incentive to win now will probably power the Clipps to do better in the regular season.

The second tier is made up of the Nuggets, Jazz, and Mavs.  Each has some warts.  Dallas had the best SRS of the group and has Luka Doncic but the lack of Kristaps Porzingis is a big hole.  Utah should be it usual solid self.  They paid about $500 million to lock in a Donovan Mitchell/Rudy Gobert core but there isn’t much upside.  I expect the Clippers to very much want a second shot at the Nuggets in the playoffs.

The elephant in the room for the west (and the whole NBA) is whether/where James Harden is traded. Any trade would/could swing the power balance of the entire league.  Houston needs to trade him before thing metastasize even more than already have.  At this point, we just wait and see where he goes and what the return is.  Incidentally, I think he would be mesh best with the 76ers over the Heat and Nets (the Nuggets are an option too but I’m skeptical that Harden wants to go there).  For today, we’ll assume he remains with Houston and they remain a middling playoff team.

As for the lower end of the conference, Phoenix is interesting with the Chris Paul/Devin Booker combo and should make the playoffs.  Portland remains that weird team that can get to the conference finals or miss the playoffs depending on how hot Dame Lillard is. 

Golden State still has Steph Curry but not much else at this moment [editor’s note: they don’t look good tonight].  They will be on the periphery of the playoff hunt competing against Memphis and Minnesota.  At the bottom, OKC is not looking to win and Sacramento just seems to end up being bad.  The Spurs are officially out of the Tim Duncan Era.

Playoffs Predictions

Conference Finals

Bucks over Nets, 4-2

Clippers over Lakers, 4-2

NBA Finals

Bucks over Clippers, 4-3

MVP: Kawhi Leonard

Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball

Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert

Coach of the Year: Ty Lue

Executive of the Year: Whoever trades for Harden