Bold Predictions for the Rest of the 2020-21 NBA Season
It's a boon for bold predictions that with under six weeks to go in the 2020-21 NBA season, so much remains unsettled.
Only a half-dozen teams have packed it in and made peace with their lottery fates (that number is seven if you include the Washington Wizards, but they're still trying to win); key injuries are nudging contenders down the standings; and two of the last three title winners are struggling to secure a play-in berth.
With so many stretch-run abnormalities in play, semi-outlandish forecasts thrive.
The point here is to make predictions that are inherently unlikely to be right. If most of these come true, they probably weren't bold enough in the first place. We're aiming for results that have at least a shred of evidence suggesting they're possible, but we don't want anything that seems probable.
Shocks and/or surprises are welcome.
Let's make some calls we'll mostly regret.
Nikola Jokic Will Be the Unanimous MVP
Let's get ridiculous right off the bat.
For starters, Stephen Curry is the only unanimous MVP in league history, and all he had to do to win in a clean sweep was submit one of the greatest offensive seasons in history for a Golden State Warriors team that set the single-season wins record.
Nikola Jokic is sniffing around that first requirement, but the second is way out of reach.
Jokic's Denver Nuggets are currently fourth in the West, and MVPs almost always come from one of the top two seeds in their conference. While his statistical production is laudable, his 2020-21 season doesn't have the same "nobody's ever seen this before" vibe Curry and the 2015-16 Warriors gave off.
That this season features so many other defensible choices further hurts Jokic's shot at a unanimous award. LeBron James, Joel Embiid and James Harden have all gotten serious buzz. Meanwhile, Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks are closer to the top seed in the East than Jokic's Nuggets are in the West. Note, too, that someone from the Utah Jazz or Phoenix Suns will get some voting love if those two teams continue to run roughshod over the league.
Will any of those other candidates get more votes than Jokic? Almost certainly not. But remember that we're predicting the Denver center will run the table. If any other candidate grabs a first-place vote, this prediction will be wrong.
This is partly a bet on the validity of Denver's post-deadline dominance. Its new starting five with Aaron Gordon is obliterating opponents by 33.9 points per 100 possessions. That's not sustainable, but if the Nuggets' new first unit remains half that good down the stretch, they'll nudge their way into the West's top two.
We've undersold Jokic's individual numbers. He's on pace to be the third player in history to average at least 26.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists, and his 64.7 true shooting percentage is by far the best of anyone who's matched those point-rebound-assist averages. If the season ended today, Jokic's plus-11.7 box plus/minus would be a top-10 figure all time and just marginally behind Curry's 2015-16 number of plus-11.9.
There's a real argument that Jokic is worthy of the second unanimous MVP we've ever seen. It's hardly a perfect one, but given the rules of this exercise, that's kind of the point.
The Toronto Raptors Will Win Two Playoff Games
As it stands now, the Toronto Raptors are 11th in the East and closer in winning percentage to the Orlando Magic (ranked 14th in the conference) than the eighth-seeded New York Knicks.
All season, I've given the 2019 champs the benefit of the doubt. Despite the continuity-killing impact of so many man-games lost to health and safety protocols, and even while acknowledging the difficulty of playing "home games" more than 1,300 miles away from Toronto, it just felt wrong to give up on the Raps.
It still does.
Despite several months of evidence suggesting the Raptors just don't have their fastball this year, this prediction is a full double-down on the bet that they'll find it in time to salvage the season.
Several factors weigh against Toronto proving this call correct. In addition to the bleak reality of the standings outlined above, the Raps' remaining schedule is among the 10 toughest in the league. This is also a specific prediction that Toronto will make the playoffs and take a series against a high seed to six games. Before that will even be possible, it'll have to win two play-in games (assuming a finish at ninth or 10th in the East) first to make it come true.
Sure. Fine. Why not? Who cares about logic and standings and schedule and alarmingly long odds? I can't quit on the Raps.
The Wrong Utah Jazz Reserve Will Win Sixth Man of the Year
This is a double prediction, which either makes it twice as bold or twice as stupid compared to the rest of these guesses.
Jordan Clarkson is going to win Sixth Man of the Year. That part shouldn't be all that controversial. He fits the prototypical mold for the award as a high-scoring reserve on a very good team. He is, however, not the Utah Jazz's top backup.
That honor goes to Joe Ingles, whose 73.0 true shooting percentage is the highest in the league among players who've attempted at least 300 shots. Nobody else is even above 68.0 percent. Clarkson is at 55.2 percent, notably lower than the overall league average of 57.1 percent.
Ingles is second on the Jazz in box plus/minus, while Clarkson is seventh. The left-handed Aussie also tops Clarkson in win shares, BBall Index's LEBRON wins added and 538's RAPTOR wins above replacement.
But sure, let's look past all that and give the trophy to Clarkson because...yay, points!
Here's hoping Ingles getting overlooked forces voters to think harder about how they evaluate the league's most helpful reserves. Clarkson is good in his role, but he's going to get rewarded as if he's the best.
Anthony Edwards Will Lead the Minnesota Timberwolves in Stretch-Run Scoring
Yes, I'm aware of Karl-Anthony Towns, who occupies space on the short list of the most complete offensive big men to ever play. He leads the Minnesota Timberwolves with 24.8 points per game and owns top-option status whenever he's on the floor.
Also on the radar: D'Angelo Russell, finally back after nearly two months on the shelf. He'll have the ball in his hands more than any other Minnesota player from here on out.
If Anthony Edwards is going to lead his team in scoring from now until the end of the season, he'll have to adjust his team's pecking order in a significant way. That said, there's some statistical support for this bold prediction, along with the fact that the top overall pick in 2020 is figuring some things out as the year winds down.
Since March 1, Edwards is averaging 24.1 points per game. That trails Towns' average of 26.9 in that span, and it's worth noting Towns is more efficient from the field, from deep and at the foul line. KAT is clearly the safest bet to top the Wolves in points per game down the stretch. Yet Edwards' signs of growth are everywhere.
He got to the free-throw line more frequently in March than in any previous month, the result of improvements in his contact-drawing craft. Edwards entered the league with uncommon strength and bulk for his position, and he's learning how to leverage that advantage as he nears the last lap of his rookie campaign.
Though he's at just 31.4 percent from deep for the season, Edwards has also gone 10-of-25 on threes in April.
Free throws and triples are key to inflating a scoring average, and Edwards is getting better in both respects.
Edwards' recent uptick may also have him in the driver's seat for Rookie of the Year. When LaMelo Ball was healthy, Edwards had no real shot. Now, the Wolves guard may have the inside track on the award. Maybe that'll motivate him to put up a handful of explosive nights before the year is out.
Finally, Minnesota has every incentive to lose games. If its first-round pick falls outside the top three, it goes to the Golden State Warriors. One great way to pile up defeats: Give the ball to an inefficient rookie and let him fire away to his heart's content.
The Record for Most Threes Hit in a Game Will Fall...Two More Times
On Dec. 29, the Milwaukee Bucks hit an NBA-record 29 threes in a 144-97 undressing of the Miami Heat. That figure still stands, but twice since then a team has come within one make of tying it.
The Houston Rockets drained 28 treys on Feb. 1, and the Utah Jazz, who are on pace to make the most triples per game in NBA history, knocked down 28 shots from beyond the arc three weeks later.
It's generally bold to bet an all-time record is going to fall, let alone tumble a second time—especially when we only have about a quarter of the season left. But the leaguewide love affair with the long ball is only accelerating. Check out that list of teams with the most three-point makes per game again; six of the top 10 entries are from this season.
Clearly, the NBA believes shooting lots of threes is still an exploitable market inefficiency. Someday, teams may determine there's a point of diminishing returns on high-volume long-range gunning. It's hard to know when the moment will come. All we know for sure is that we're not there yet.
The Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets join the Jazz, Rockets and Bucks in the 25-make club this year, which means we have several squads who've already shown enough of an affinity for the deep ball to threaten the record. As the year winds down and bottom-feeding squads get a little more experimental with their rotations and tactics in low-stakes settings, a few of them could push the triple limit, too.
Who knows? Maybe one of them will catch a heater and drain 30 of them.