A New MVP? LaMelo for Real? 14 Staff Predictions for 2020-21 NBA Season
The NBA season starting on Dec. 22 is a weird thing to type. But here we are, on the cusp of a season played spread across the U.S. despite a raging pandemic (sorry, Toronto).
After the league's massively successful Orlando bubble experiment, 30 teams enter the regular season—a season inevitably unlike any we've seen before.
To make sense of it all, we asked Bleacher Report's NBA experts for 14 bold opinions heading into the season.
James Harden Will Be Traded to the Pelicans
The Rockets shouldn't rush to get a James Harden trade completed. The trade deadline is March 25, but this may resolve itself before the end of January. The relationship between 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey and Rafael Stone, general manager of the Rockets, is a factor.
Rejoining Kevin Durant may make a lot of sense for Harden. But ultimately, it will be the Pelicans with the best offer of young players (Lonzo Ball, Jaxson Hayes, etc.), veterans (one or both of JJ Redick and Eric Bledsoe) and draft considerations.
The New-Look Lakers Will Be Even Better
The Lakers were obviously good last season, but they are better this year. Their acquisitions cover up for what they lost and also give this team multiple ways to run its offense, whether LeBron James and Anthony Davis are on or off the court.
Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell should form a lethal pick-and-roll combo. Marc Gasol is another guy they can run actions through with his high IQ and passing ability. The Lakers may have lost a little defense, but they got much stronger on offense.
Kawhi Leonard Will Go Hard in Regular Season
Last year, Kawhi Leonard played just 57 of the Clippers' 72 regular-season games. From the start of the year, he was on the load-management plan to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Things did not go according to plan.
This season will be different. Leonard has participated in every practice and played all three preseason games. So I'll bet he plays 90 percent of scheduled games for the Clippers.
Draymond Green Will Be Traded to the Hawks
Each season the rumor mill focuses on a handful of players, buzzing until they're finally dealt. Still, there always seems to be one trade that seemingly comes from out of nowhere. This year's shocker will be triggered by the terrible misfortune to fall upon Klay Thompson, who tore his Achilles before the start of training camp.
The window for the Warriors is rapidly closing, while the Hawks are dead set on making the playoffs. Unable to reach a contract extension with John Collins, the Hawks will ship him with shooter Kevin Huerter and veteran Tony Snell to the Warriors for Draymond Green.
Luka Doncic Will Be a Bigger Threat from Deep
Thirty points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game while shooting 38 percent from three.
It's hard to predict much more from Luka Doncic in terms of raw production. Just a few years ago, before Russell Westbrook shattered expectations with his triple-double seasons, the 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists Luka averaged in 2019-20 would've been almost unfathomable. So, in terms of those numbers, the prediction is that he'll be right around where he was last season.
Where we'll see some growth is in his efficiency from the outside. Luka is already one of the game's best finishers. If he becomes an above-average three-point shooter, he's on track for an all-time great offensive season.
Steph Curry Will Get Warriors to Playoffs
Steph Curry will get the Warriors to the playoffs, assuming we're now including the play-in teams (the Nos. 7-10 seeds in each conference) as part of that group. Securing a top-six spot in the West is going to be exceptionally difficult.
With Klay Thompson out, it's tough to peg Golden State as more trustworthy than the L.A. teams, Denver, Dallas or Utah. Even Portland and Phoenix seem deeper. And Houston is a wild card, depending on what happens with James Harden. But Curry alone is enough to warrant the Warriors' inclusion in the next tier of playoff contenders. If James Wiseman is ahead of schedule, maybe they push for more.
LaMelo Ball Will Dazzle but Struggle with Shot
Ball's rookie highlight reel will top everyone's from the class. He's entering the league as one of its most skilled, creative passers. But will he back up the flash with substance and efficiency?
Yes and no. His passing will improve Charlotte's offense and flow. Teammates will be getting easier scoring chances in transition and open threes or finishes in the half court. But Ball himself won't shoot a high percentage. He'll struggle to consistently make shots, finish in traffic and create quality looks for himself.
But this early, the positives outweigh the negatives. Ball's playmaking will make the game easier for a number of Hornets—specifically Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington.
Mediocre Teams Will Want a Top-5 Pick
Players don't tank. But front offices indirectly can by prioritizing young prospect development over racking up meaningless wins. And that should happen this upcoming season given the excitement around the projected 2021 draft class.
Scouts are already drooling over the top prospects. There is a belief that Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham, Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs and USC's Evan Mobley are franchise-changers. Then there are the G League Ignite stars Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga, who scouts haven't had as many opportunities to see.
Unlike 2020, when there seemed to be more interest in trading down than up, teams will be extra motivated to land a top-five pick.
Coby White Realizes His Destiny
Coby White's strong play right before the shutdown of last season had Bulls fans feeling hopeful for the first time in a long time. He's going to start alongside Zach LaVine in the backcourt, and he's going to shoot a lot.
But the Bulls are going to struggle with those two playing alongside one another, and White's emergence as a starter doesn't change the fact that they need a long-term solution as a lead ball-handler. Whether that means trading for one, trading Zach LaVine or moving White to the bench, he's much more likely to fulfill his promise as a sixth man than he is as a long-term starter.
Nikola Jokic Will Have a Better Season Than Anthony Davis
Feathers were ruffled when Nikola Jokic finished ahead of Anthony Davis in Bleacher Report's NBA 100 ranking. That wasn't by design, and I get the outrage. Davis is coming off a monster bubble performance, his defense remains underappreciated, and he basically turned into Kevin Durant from mid-range while hitting threes at a high clip.
Still, primary playmakers have inherently more influence over the offense and, by extension, their teams. Jokic is the player who sets both the tenor and ceiling for the Nuggets. That's not Davis' responsibility for the Lakers, as LeBron James ferries that burden. That's fine. Davis shouldn't be penalized for it, and he's not. This is more about giving Jokic the credit he deserves as the heartbeat of a title contender.
Knicks Find Hope in a Rookie
Preseason, just like summer league, is not a time to overreact to the play of youngsters. Conditions are sculpted specifically to give them volume they won't enjoy during games that matter. This must all be kept in mind when gauging the immediate outlook for Immanuel Quickley.
And yet, screw it. I'm stepping out on this limb anyway.
Quickley, like many other Kentucky alumni before him, is showing he has more to offer when he's allowed to put the ball on the floor. This doesn't feel like a Kevin Knox-type mirage, either. He is scoring from multiple levels and in a variety of ways, his outside shooting is extremely functional, and he looks more comfortable initiating the offense than any point guard prospect New York has drafted in some time.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau may be inclined to roll with more established options in the backcourt, like Elfrid Payton and Austin Rivers. But the bet here is Quickley plays too well to be ignored and, therefore, garners the counting stats and attention necessary to make first-team All-Rookie.
Kyrie and KD WILL Coexist
I'm not overlooking the Nets' league-leading potential for unraveling. All I'm saying is that if Brooklyn comes undone, it won't be because Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving can't get along. These guys chose one another as running mates, and both have experience playing with other star scorers.
They'll figure it out.
That still leaves rookie head coach Steve Nash, Irving's checkered locker-room track record, injury, title-or-bust pressure and a suspect defense as candidates to bring about a Nets downfall.
The Bucks Will Win the East
Though a lack of depth means there's potential for a step back in the regular season, remember that the Bucks were 53-12 entering the bubble, well ahead of the second-seeded Raptors.
Consider this a bet that the Bucks have enough of a cushion to get a little worse and still enter the playoffs seeded first in the East.
Every criticism of the Bucks relates to their playoff performances. The inflexibility, the low minute totals for stars, the general lack of a Plan B against elite defenses—that's all postseason stuff. Giannis is still Giannis, and he's dominated the last two regular seasons.
That won't change.
Dame Lillard Will Win MVP
The MVP field is wide-open this year. Giannis Antetokounmpo won't become the first player since Larry Bird to win it three times in a row (1984-86) on the heels of two disappointing playoff exits. LeBron James may not play enough games, and the jury's out on the health over a full season of Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant.
Damian Lillard is in a great position to capitalize on his run in the bubble and take home the award. If the Blazers finish with a top-four seed in the West and Lillard puts up the kind of numbers he did last year, he has the media support for voters to want to give it to him.