17 unimpeachable predictions for the 2020-21 NBA season
From the play-in tournaments to the first coach fired to the NBA champs, here's what I think on the eve of the regular season.
Good morning. First and foremost I want to apologize to Ja Morant and the Ja Morant Internet Fan Club (which is in reality just the entire internet) for leaving him off my “13 Players It Will Be Hella Fun to Watch in 2020-21” list on Thursday. It was an oversight! I’m very excited for Ja Morant. Lots of other players who didn’t make the list, too. Sorry!
Also, a quick programming note: ALL OF NEXT WEEK’S GMIB NEWSLETTERS WILL BE FREE TO ALL. Consider it a Free Preview Week and a celebration of the coming 1-year anniversary of GMIB’s debut on Substack.
The Astronomer, Johannes Vermeer
Here are my unimpeachable predictions for the 2020-21 NBA season.
1. We will have a first-time NBA MVP. The heavy betting is on Luka Doncic right now. My personal preseason pick is Damian Lillard: I think the Blazers are set up to “surprise” — it’s not really a surprise if they finish top-3 in the West given they had a good offseason, got healthy and Dame is a superstar, but it’s a big jump from the play-in — and surprises usually count for something. Luka’s a good bet. Anthony Davis, Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum are all in play. Kawhi Leonard and Nikola Jokic are on the table.
Here’s the main reason I believe it will be someone new. LeBron and the Lakers have telegraphed he will focus on hitting the playoffs in stride, which is code for taking rest days on those rare days the Lakers aren’t on national TV. Giannis Antetokounmpo is phenomenal, but he’s not going to win three MVPs in a row, even if he deserves it. (Although his decision to remain in Milwaukee is bait for a lot of media voters.) James Harden will not come within 20 beard lengths of the MVP trophy this season no matter how well he plays. The only former MVP who I think has a strong shot at the award is Kevin Durant, but I presume the Nets will take it easy with him in the regular season. But I wouldn’t be shocked if KD blows the doors off and becomes an early leader for the award. It’s kind of bonkers he only has one NBA MVP, isn’t it?
2. The Indiana Pacers will be a top-4 seed. I called this out earlier this week when I picked the Pacers as one of my three teams that will be better than expected. This team has been surprisingly good three straight years, and despite the drama with Victor Oladipo’s pending free agency and Myles Turner being shopped, the core is really solid. Now, the top of the East is crowded, so who’s getting “pushed out” to make way for Indiana? Milwaukee and Brooklyn will be top-3 seeds, I presume. If I have Indiana at No. 4 or better, that leaves one spot for the Celtics, Heat, Sixers and Raptors. I’d put the Celtics there now, with reservations about Kemba Walker’s knee and a potential James Harden trade for the Sixers. Miami is really good, but I don’t think they will be too focused on winning a top speed after the confidence-boosting Finals run in the bubble. Philadelphia makes a little more sense now than last season but don’t forget they were the No. 6 seed last season. Is Doc Rivers, Seth Curry and Danny Green that big a difference? Finally, I don’t want to talk about my beloved Raptors right now. I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT THE RAPTORS OK.
3. The East play-in derby will actually break your heart. I think the Hawks and Wizards, who will both outstrip expectations and finish over .500, will be fighting for a playoff spot as the No. 8 and 9 seeds and we will weep for the loser.
4. The Warriors and Rockets will both be in the West play-in party. I regret to inform you that I have lost faith in this version of the Warriors without Klay Thompson. I count seven teams better than this pair right now: L.A. and L.A., Portland, Utah, Denver, Phoenix and Dallas. Golden State’s roster has a walking MVP candidate and DPOY candidate, like two average-ish or slightly above average rotation players, a potential future star rookie and a lot of players who would not be in a lot of playoff rotations. The Rockets are an entire bucket of question marks: pretty much everyone of note but Christian Wood — Christian Wood — is coming off serious injuries or seriously disgruntled and at least 50-50 to be traded. These are bad recipes, folks.
5. The New York Knicks will be the worst team in the NBA. I feel like I don’t need to explain this one any further. The Thunder, Kings and regrettably the Wolves will be in contention for this dishonor as well, and the Pistons and Cavaliers might again find themselves in the mix. I feel like this season will be R.J. Barrett coming alive in a lot of losing efforts. My No. 2 contender for the NBA’s worst team is OKC. I feel bad that I have already completely forgotten the name of OKC’s new head coach. Cut me a break, it took me like three weeks of the regular season to remember Taylor Jenkins last season.
6. The Bucks will not have the No. 1 record in the league. Not because Milwaukee is any worse, but because Mike Budenholzer will finally experiment some to try to pre-adjust to playoff basketball. We’re well aware that Bud-coached teams can thrive in the controlled environment of the regular season. But his job is on the line, and if the Bucks don’t have a successful postseason — whatever that means to the Bucks’ braintrust — he’s quite likely out. So I think he’ll sacrifice wins to try out certain tactics and strategies against teams like Miami, Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Boston.
7. The Blazers will be a top-4 seed. I’m leaning into this being Damian Lillard’s season.
8. The Mavericks will win a playoff series. This prediction is a bit out there because I don’t think Dallas is quite as good as the L.A. teams — no offense to the Nuggets, who have shown they can win in the postseason, or Portland. But Luka Doncic has that je ne sais quoi that, like Dame, lets him exceed expectations in critical moments. I’m worried about the Kristaps Porzingis timeline and the Mavericks’ frontcourt in general, but the belief in Luka is stronger than those doubts. (Rick Carlisle is an excellent playoff coach, too.)
9. Luke Walton will be the first head coach fired. There are a few candidates on the hot seat but Walton probably should not have entered this season as an NBA head coach. I really don’t know what ownership or the Kings’ previous front office saw in Walton’s time as the Lakers head coach that made them think he was the right pick for a young roster, but alas. Sacramento hired Alvin Gentry as Walton’s top assistant; he should be in the interim role by Presidents’ Day. (I am sorry to be so crass about someone’s livelihood. Luke Walton will be fine, though.)
10. Zion Williamson will make the All-Star team. We’re still doing All-Star teams even though there’s no All-Star Game, right? A minimum of six and maximum of eight big men make All-Star in each conference. In the West, ahead of Zion you for sure have LeBron, Anthony Davis and Kawhi. The other three bigs to make the team last year were Nikola Jokic (pretty close to a lock to get in again, barring injury), Rudy Gobert and teammate Brandon Ingram. Paul George is a perennial All-Star who didn’t make it last year. Karl-Anthony Towns is the other Western frontcourt player who should be considered a contender on paper every year. Zion can definitely break into that group ahead of Gobert and Ingram. I think he will. (The guard situation is more crowded with Doncic, Harden if he isn’t traded East, Steph Curry, Lillard, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Donovan Mitchell, Jamal Murray — I think that could keep Ja Morant out of the mix for at least another year.)
11. Buddy Hield will get traded and Tyrese Haliburton will win Rookie of the Year. I’ve seen enough.
12. Someone will score 70 in a game this season. My candidates are Dame, Booker, both Kyrie and KD, Towns, Harden, Murray, Mitchell and Bradley Beal. Why 70? High-scoring individual performances have been increasing in frequency lately, there will be more sub-NBA level players in game this season due to rest schedules and potential COVID-19 related absences, there will be basically no practices, the league has sought to limit travel so top players should in theory be fresher.
13. Most top American players will opt out of the Olympics, despite the opportunity to play for the beloved Gregg Popovich. The turnaround time from the end of the NBA season to the Olympics is too tight, and it looks like free agency won’t hit until August 1. The men’s Olympic tournament will suffer, and I’m skeptical the United States will win.
14. Kyle Lowry will be on the trade block. Lowry is the heart and soul of the Raptors, but he’s a free agent in the summer and both he and Aron Baynes (both 34 years old) are the only Toronto players over the age of 27. (Chris Boucher turns 28 next month. Yes, this is completely shocking to me too.) Even more important: Lowry has secured his legacy with the 2019 championship and he has a lot of value around the league, even on a rental. I could definitely see a fringe contender make a play for him at the deadline, hoping he’ll shore them up in the playoffs and put them over the top. Masai Ujiri is too smart to get sentimental and let Lowry walk for nothing or minor sign-and-trade considerations in the offseason. He already did that with Serge Ibaka this summer, which was necessary because Toronto was defending a championship and in play to return to the Finals had things gone a bit differently in the bubble. I don’t think that will be the case this season — they certainly aren’t defending the championship, and I don’t think it will look like they have a real shot at winning it by February. Though OG Anunoby’s coming breakout could prove that wrong.
15. The Brooklyn Nets will make the NBA Finals. Milwaukee should be better in the playoffs than before, and you have to believe in Miami. Boston showed guts in the bubble playoffs, as did Toronto. But Brooklyn has Kevin Durant and a wealth of talent around him. Even if Giannis is better than KD at this moment in time, are Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez better than Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie? I’m not convinced. I’m actually most intrigued for a Brooklyn-Boston series, and I hope we get it.
16. The L.A. Lakers will repeat as champions. I have recently cautioned against putting too much stock in the Lakers’ 2019-20 triumph and strong offseason. But this is the best team in the NBA, and I feel like the best team in the NBA usually wins the NBA championship. Plus, LeBron, you know? I think the Clippers remain a strong challenge in the West, and the East has a few teams that can absolutely compete with the Lakers in a best-of-7 series (including Brooklyn — if it happens, this could be a terrific Finals). But the Lakers really are the favorites here. Overwhelming favorites? Maybe not. Favorites over the field? No. Favorites all the same? Yes.
17. There will be points during this NBA season where we wonder what the entire hell the league is doing having a relatively normal campaign while a deadly pandemic continues to rampage throughout North America. I’m optimistic about the efficacy of vaccination and I actually do think there’s a chance we’ll be somewhat “back to normal” (for a certain definition of normal) in the coming months. But the coming months before we get there (assuming we get there) will clearly continue to bring an overwhelming amount of tragedy, pain and sorrow to communities all around us.
I think most of you subscribe to GMIB first as a source of joy regarding basketball, not for a realist shot of cold water to the face about the world. So I try to keep that in mind when writing about basketball’s intersection with the broader world. In some ways talking less about the pandemic is a form of self-preservation. These hours writing and editing (ha, editing, yeah right) the newsletter is an escape for me, just as reading it might be an escape for you, or watching games might be an escape for us. The pandemic, after NINE MONTHS in our lives, is the new normal, and there’s a certain numbness about the scope of death and hurt — a regrettable numbness, in my mind — that there simply wasn’t in April, May, June when plans for the bubble were starting to crop up.
So while the scale of tragedy is far greater now than in June, and the NBA’s plans to move forward are far less protective than they were in June, I almost feel as though the basketball fandom has (in a way) come to terms with that. That the players and NBA community have come to terms with that.
It’s hard for me to know where my head is at with all of this, let alone try to ascertain where the GMIB community is at with it. When is distraction from our lived reality a service, and when is it a disservice? When is it time to question the value of distraction given its cost, and when is it time to keep the demons in all our heads at bay?
I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know
My commitment heading into what will likely be an even stranger, sadder season is to at least consider these questions regularly as I continue to bring you what I promised when you signed up: dispatches on triumph and frivolity in the NBA. This newsletter will not be closed off to the continued tragedy around us nor the NBA’s role in distracting from it and potentially contributing to it. But for all of our sake, we’ll still mostly focus on the basketball and basketball-adjacent stuff. And we’ll try to do so with the mirth that these distractions offer.
I hope that works for you. Please comment on this post if you have thoughts on these topics — I may not be able to respond, but I’ll read them all.
Be excellent to each other. See you Monday.