By Pete of the North 12/20/20
After an eventful but incredibly brief offseason, it is already that time to make some rash and occasionally biased predictions for the NBA’s 2021 season. Some of these will be pretty obvious and not remotely controversial, where others may be the Red Bull fueled ramblings of a madman. Either way, in no particular order, let’s do this thing…
- The Lakers will repeat. After storming through the 2020 playoffs with just five losses in four rounds in the bubble, Lebron, AD and company left zero doubt that they were the best team in the world, with two top-five NBA superstars at the controls. Incredibly enough, they went from postseason champs to arguably the offseason champs as well, adding Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell, and Dennis Schroder to the mix (as well as Talen Horton-Tucker in the draft who is already showing potential as an All-Rookie sleeper). Schroder will be an upgrade to Danny Green and the Gasol/Harrell combo will be an upgrade to the departed Dwight Howard/Javale McGee duo. The only notable loss will be that of playoff legend Rajon Rondo who followed the money to Atlanta. Rondo’s playoff swagger and confidence will be missed, but the overall upgrade in talent (while locking up their superstar duo of Lebron and AD for the foreseeable future) should all but guarantee ring number five for the King in 2021.
- The Greek Freak makes his first NBA Finals. The Bucks have the best player in the Eastern Conference in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and he now has two All Stars in Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday to rely on, as well as some just-solid-enough role players in Bryn Forbes, who started for the Spurs the last two seasons, DJ Augustin, and two decent stretch bigs in Brook Lopez and Bobby Portis. This is as good a group as Milwaukee, Wisconsin will be able to compile for Giannis, and his time is now or never, as it could be said that conference rivals Philadelphia, Boston and Toronto conversely all took slight steps back heading into next year in terms of talent. Brooklyn is a huge threat, obviously, but I see the Nets needing at least one more year to get everyone healthy and on the same page. A more-focused-than-ever Antetokounmpo will give some fight to the Lakers in the finals and take two games, but ultimately two top-5 players are better than one, and the Lakers will prevail for back-to-back titles.
- The Wizards will make noise in the East. Russell Westbrook has shown the ability to will a team to (limited) success all by himself when necessary, even in a stacked Western Conference throughout his career. He now finds himself in a weaker Eastern Conference, with a partner in crime in Bradley Beal who may just be his ideal backcourt running mate. Those two should put up close to 60 a game on a regular basis, and have some solid role players in Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura and others around them to fill in the gaps and take advantage of open shots. They won’t win a ring, but they should take an opening round playoff series in the East and could be a dark-horse contender for the conference.
- The Clippers will make their first Western Conference Finals. Tyronn Lue will work his ego-massaging magic on this Clippers squad and get us the Battle of Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals that most of us had predicted last year. Kawhi will be brilliant in the playoffs and his former Raptors running mate in Serge Ibaka will be a solid playoff contributor to pick up Paul George’s slack should ol’ Playoff P. rear his ugly head once again. They are still an imperfect team, however, and they will not dethrone the Lakers as LA’s team or as Western Conference champs, at least not this year.
- Pascal Siakam will take another step forward, and the Raptors will make the conference finals. The Raptors likely would have made it out of the East in 2020 if Pascal Siakam had been even 75% of himself in the bubble playoffs. However, he was not, and he challenged Paul George for the ironic misnomer of Playoff P. this year. Siakam, however, is too good and still developing (he first picked up a basketball at 16 for Pete’s sake), and that downward spiral will not continue. The Raptors are going to be a defensive juggernaut this year. They have been a top 5 defensive team for three straight years led by undersized but aggressive guards Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVliet and long, lanky wings in O.G. Anunoby and Siakam. Newcomer Aaron Baynes will be a decent replacement for what they lost in Serge Ibaka and what was left of Marc Gasol (he is a strong defender who can step outside to shoot the three as well). Even with Siakam struggling, the Raptors took the Celtics to seven games in the Conference Semifinals last year. This year, I see Siakam taking yet another step forward, putting up around 27.0 ppg in the regular season, and actually keeping up that rate of production in the playoffs to get the Raptors back to the conference finals. They won’t have quite enough to stop the Greek Freak from making his first finals this year, however, and will fall to the Bucks.
- Luka Doncic wins league MVP. The dude is 21 years old and damn near averaged a 29 point triple double last year. He is going to get even better this year and could easily put up 30-10-10 for the season. If Kristaps Porzingis can get healthy, the Mavericks are the most dangerous team in the West to potentially knock off one of the LA squads in the playoffs. They won’t, not this year at least, but Luka will put up some insane numbers along the way that will make him a shoe-in for the regular season MVP award, joining Derrick Rose as just the second 22-year old to accomplish this incredible feat.
- The Hawks will make the playoffs. This will be the year Trae Young and company get to the next level. Trae will average around 30 ppg once again, but this time will have some serious help, backed up by a cagey veteran in Rajon Rondo who will come up big down the stretch, an intimidating young front court in John Collins and Clint Capela, and incoming European sharp shooters Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic on the wings (along with youngsters Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish). The Hawks will arrive this year, winning around 48 games and making the playoffs as a 5 to 7 seed.
- The Nuggets have peaked. The Nuggets dynamic duo of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray shocked the world by knocking off the Clippers and facing off with Lebron and company in the Western Conference finals last year. However, the Jazz took them to seven games in round one, and many (myself included) believe the Clippers defeated themselves at least as much as they were beaten by Denver. They then put up little fight against the Lakers, falling four to one. I believe the Nuggets are a very good team, and will continue to make it to the postseason, but they will never reach another conference finals with this team as currently constructed. They seemed to be one of the few teams who came into the bubble mentally and physically prepared to contend last year, but they still just didn’t have the talent to challenge the King. This year, I see them taking a step back in an even stronger Western Conference. They may sneak out of a first round series but when they face a true contender in round two, they won’t put up much of a fight.
- James Wiseman wins Rookie of the Year. It is exceedingly rare that a lottery pick ends up a potential contender, but this is James Wiseman’s reality. The number two pick in the draft joins Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins, and Kelly Oubre in a playoff caliber and dark horse contender of a lineup (and one day, Klay Thompson will fit back into that line up as well, which is a scary thought). Despite his outstanding talent and potential, Wiseman will only be asked to be a fifth offensive option on this squad and should get a ton of open looks with this much talent around him. He will be asked to quickly become the primary rebounder and rim protector, however, which should set him up for solid numbers in his rookie season. Let’s set the bar at 16.0 points, 9.0 boards, and 2.0 blocks per game and Rookie of the Year honors as the Warriors return to the playoffs this year.
- Brooklyn disappoints. On paper, the Nets are the best team in the Eastern Conference and should make it out of the East to take on King James and the Lakers. Kevin Durant, if he comes back at least 90% of what he once was, is neck and neck with Giannis for best player in the conference. Kyrie is arguably a top 5 player in the conference as well. However, there are two giant red flags on this team: health and chemistry. Both of their superstars are coming off major injuries, and they also bring with them two of the more polarizing, let’s say challenging personalities in the league. It is hard to predict how rookie head coach Steve Nash will manage the workload and built-in drama of his stars. If things go well, this team blows several of my previous predictions apart and they run away with the Eastern Conference. If the house of cards slowly starts to deconstruct, then they quickly dethrone the Clippers as the biggest disappointment in the league this year. Call it intuition or a wild guess, but I see some cards falling this year and Brooklyn not making it past the second round of the playoffs.
Just two days away from opening night, with Covid-19 still running rampant, the Raptors playing in Florida, and James Harden looking like the second coming of the WWE’s Mark Henry in his preseason debut it is clear this is going to be an interesting season. I personally can’t wait to see how it all plays out.
Agree? Disagree? Couldn’t care less? Let me know! As always, thanks for checking out the blog!