2020–21 NBA Season Preview: Lakers Repeat, Clippers’ Revenge, Bucks’ or Nets’ Salvation, or Underdog Victory?

Didn’t we just conclude the last season a few weeks back? Damn! It’s going to be a tough one. But surely a hell lot entertaining as usual. With the new season starting 22nd Dec, a lot has happened in the offseason which deserves our attention. Some good moves, some bad moves and some just weird. We have a few superstars returning to the action after injury hiatus. NBA Bubble experience was truly remarkable in every sense. Not just the sanity, players could also maintain the competitive aspect without home advantage. It truly set the benchmark for conducting professional league sports amidst the pandemic. Now the league has an upcoming challenge to continue the same standard for a complete season.

To cope with the delay caused by previous season’s finish, the league has decided to reduce the regular season to 72 games from 82 games. This was necessary from two aspects: finishing the season as per the regular calendar to bring normalcy for future seasons and it gives rest to the players who just finished a gruelling long season. The schedule has been designed in a way which reduces team travelling and back-to-back matches organized in the same city. Canada’s representation in the NBA, Toronto Raptors, would be playing their matches in Tampa, Florida to restrict cross-border travel and risk Canadian lives. More so, the league has only come up with the schedule for the first half of the season as of now. The schedule for the second half will be announced towards the end of the first half. There have been changes in COVID guidelines as well with different kinds of testing at different frequencies. Looks like a roller coaster season ahead of us.

Let’s talk about how the teams look like going into this season. Let’s start with the Eastern Conference:

Miami Heat

Miami Heat was the dark horse last year. Reaching the Finals as 5th seed, knocking out Bucks in 5, that’s some accomplishment. They have a really strong squad and they have added a few more shooters from LA, Maurice Harkless from Clippers and Avery Bradley from Lakers. This just brings more strength to their perimeter offence to go along with their great defence. Butler, Adebayo, Dragic, Herro, Robinson are the stars of this squad and they can definitely look for a top 4 finish this season. I don’t see them reaching Finals this year but who knows with Spoelstra’s tactics and Butler’s drive, we may see them shocking the world again.

Milwaukee Bucks

Bucks have had a disappointing finish last couple of seasons despite finishing the regular season with the best record in the league. Back to back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has fallen short of taking the team to the Finals. They have tried to replace Malcolm Brogdon’s void by trading Eric Bledsoe to Pelicans in exchange for Jrue Holiday. Jrue Holiday is a truly underrated star. Middleton has to step up as their second-best player along with the bench. Even though Bucks showed some spirit in the absence of Greek Freak against Heat, they need to maintain that consistency. With Giannis signing super-max extension, he should aim for nothing less than the chip. He needs to get better as well as it seems the teams in the East have figured out a way to stop him in the playoffs. Bucks are still the favourite in the East but it’s time they match the outcome with expectations.

Brooklyn Nets

My pick for the NBA Finals from East this season. Kevin Durant and Kyrie along with DeAndre Jordan, Dinwiddie, Allen, LeVert, Harris. In the Ric Flair voice, WOOOO! KD and Kyrie are back from injury with their new head coach Steve Nash. Brooklyn Nets got swept in the first round of the playoffs last season, but with the addition of these two superstars, they can spell trouble for the East. Although Kyrie has already made news this summer and off-season for all the wrong reasons, it’s time he finally shows us if he can be a man and a leader on and off the pitch. We know what KD is, he is a sniper on the court. However, the only thing people hold against KD is his stint with Golden State who were 73–9 before he joined them, leaving no scope for anyone to think about beating them. KD and Kyrie have some points to prove and they have everything at their disposal to do so.

Philadelphia 76ers

Another team which hasn’t lived up to its hype and potential. Every year it’s the same question which everyone asks: Will Simmons start shooting the ball? Is Joel Embiid healthy? When will Embiid start dominating? And at the end of the season, we wait for the next year to see if these will be answered. With another disappointing loss in the playoffs, 76ers fired the head coach Brett Brown and hired Doc Rivers. Doc brings a championship pedigree and is the only hope that these 2 superstars realise their potential and make up for the shortcomings. 76ers also added Danny Green, Seth Curry, Dwight Howard in the transfer market which gives additional strength to the weaker squad. Tobias Harris needs to improve. Who knows if these questions would be answered this season. If yes, we might look at NBA Finals contender, else next year is always yours.

Toronto Raptors

2019 NBA Champions had a tough playoff run last while defending their championship. To everyone’s surprise, they had a great regular season despite losing the Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. Lowry, Siakam, VanVleet, Ibaka, Gasol stepped up to finish 2nd in the regular season. Now they face a tougher challenge from Heat, Bucks, Nets, Celtics with a further depleted squad. Trading Ibaka to Clippers and Marc Gasol to Lakers, someone from the rest of the squad will have to elevate their game to MVP standards while remaining plays like all-stars. Their head coach, Nick Nurse will have to work some magic with his tactics to make any claim in the East. Maybe keeping Drake on the sideline can help as a distraction. To be honest, I don’t see them moving past 2nd round of the playoffs unless they bolster their squad.

Boston Celtics

With every passing year, Celtics find it hard to even reach the Conference Finals, let alone NBA Finals. With the addition of Kemba Walker, the rise of Jayson Tatum along with Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown, they looked a solid contender in the East but could not go past the Conference Finals again. This year now with the trade of Hayward, Brad Stevens has his hands full to make the impossible possible. It has been 7 years now since Brad has been the head coach and 10 years since Celtics made it to the NBA Finals. That’s really hard for one of the most successful franchises. The road looks even harder for them and 2nd round of playoffs seems like their best shot this year.

Indiana Pacers

Let’s just address it as it is. It’s just really tough for Pacers to make any claim in the East whatsoever. I understand, Oladipo, Sabonis, other Holiday brothers, Brogdon who everyone raves about, TJ Warren — MVP of the bubble last season. But still, No. This isn’t your Reggie Miller or even Paul George Pacers. I have nothing against them but East is an easier conference compared to West and getting eliminated in the first round of playoffs for last 5 consecutive seasons isn’t helping your cause. Still, I always root for the underdog story so let’s see if they can reach the next level this year.

Now the only other team I would even mention in this conference is Washington Wizards. And just one reason for this, Russell Westbrook. John Wall was traded to Rockets bringing Russ to Eastern Conference for the first time. Paired with Bradley Beal, Wizards can make a claim for the 8th seed provided these two stars could strike that chemistry. It has been tough to pair someone with Westbrook provided his strong personality. Yet, he is such a great player that you would wish to see him win a title someday. It’s not an ideal place for him, yet let’s see if Beal and Westbrook can work wonders together. Rest of the teams do not have the slightest chance. Knicks, Cavs, Magic, Hawks, Charlotte, Detroit, Bulls. So rather let’s talk about the Western conference:

Dallas Mavericks

What can you say about Luka Doncic that has already not been said? The second coming of LeBron, Magic, Jason Kidd, this guy is so so talented. MVPs and Championships written all over. Combine that with Porzingis, Hardaway Jr., Finney Smith, this team are the dark horses in the West. They gave a tough fight to Clippers in the first round last season. With Luka expected to be in the MVP conversation in the coming season, it’s more up to the rest of the team to assist him to have a chance in the playoffs. They will surely make the playoffs without a doubt but will find it hard to crack in the top 4. I expect them to be a great entertaining team in the regular season, but they need to fire on all the cylinders to make it to the 2nd round or beyond.

Golden State Warriors

“Splash brothers are baaaaccc.. “
“Ooops, wait a second, Klay got injured.”
“Relax dude, that was a year ago, keep yourself updated”.
“It happened again.”
“What!! Ohh, nooooo.”

Golden State Warriors were prepping up to be the same dominant force in the West. But then they were dealt a body blow with Klay’s Achilles injury. Steph along with Draymond have their cut out for them but find themselves several players short compared to last Finals run. No KD, Iguodala, Livingston. They have added Kelly Oubre Jr., Andrew Wiggins and rookie James Wiseman which should help their cause but we will have to wait and see how these new-look Warriors regain their place in the West. One thing is certain, Steph Curry needs to shoot the lights out as he does every time he steps on the court. As exceptional as Steve Kirr is, we cannot underestimate Warriors this season. My prediction: 2nd round of playoffs at most.

Phoenix Suns

What do you get when you have one of the smartest guys Chris Paul join a prolific scorer Devin Booker? A recipe to stir things up for Suns. Along with Jae Crowder, Deandre Ayton and rookie Ty-Shon Alexander, Phoenix Suns can be the dark horses in the West. Suns went 8–0 in the bubble but still could not qualify for the playoffs. While doing so they showed the world, they can make a solid run for that 8th seed if they find the missing piece to their puzzle. With one of the genius PGs in their squad, they can surely upset many teams in the coming season.

Utah Jazz

Utah Jazz has been a regular playoffs team for some time now. Deservedly so. Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Mike Conley along with good supporting cast has legitimized their claim for the playoff and should remain the same this year as well. They were a single game away from making it to the second round but were upset by the Nuggets in a thrilling 7 game series. If Donovan Mitchell, could just carry that form over a period of 72 games and the playoffs, it can be Utah’s turn to upset a few teams and go deep into the playoffs. But for now, my prediction doesn’t see them going past the first round.

New Orleans Pelicans

Pelicans can be another team which makes a surprising run this season. The only differentiating factor, Zion Williamson. There’s a craze around Zion we haven’t seen since LeBron’s entry in the NBA. We saw a glimpse last season of the havoc he can wreak. Now add the most improved player of the year, Brandon Ingram. Lonzo Ball, JJ Reddick, Steven Adams, Eric Bledsoe, Jaxson Hayes. I am looking at another contender for that 8th seed. Now Zion needs to figure out his health issues and justify that craze like LeBron did and prove that he too can be a generational player. Ohh, the play-in tournament for that 8th seed is really going to be tricky in the west. Jazz, Suns and Pelicans. Someone like Zion can really tip the scales in their team’s favour.

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland had a disappointing run last season after finishing 3rd in the regular season before it. Damian Lillard is making 3 point range look like mid-range jumper by consistently shooting from the logo. His FG% beyond 30ft is better than most players’ regular shooting efficiency. Melo had a career reviving season with Blazers. CJ McCollum, Whiteside and Nurkic have to step up their game this season. Portland has a great talent to struggle for the playoffs position. Addition of Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. should further help make it happen. Much was made after their early exit in Round 1 last season but you can’t mess with Dame Dolla. They would look to continue further into the playoffs even making claim for the Conference Finals. Provided how the remaining teams are stacked up, we better hope Melo, CJ and Dame just keep draining those swishes.

Denver Nuggets

What a run they had last season. Coming back being 3–1 down in back to back series upsetting Jazz and title contender Clippers. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray would look to continue from where they left off. Jokic has handles unlike none at his size. Murray is ascending and can further cement his status this season. This pair along with Millsap, Porter Jr., Barton and addition of JaMychal Green really makes them a team of the future. Jokic and Murray have to be consistent. We can understand switching the gears facing elimination, but they need to start leading rather than chasing. They have an excellent coach in Mike Malone. Let’s hope they prove the naysayers wrong again this time. My prediction: 2nd round of playoffs this time.

Houston Rockets

It has all gone downhill for the Rockets. Going small, pairing Russ with Harden, then trading Russ for John Wall. Wait, this still isn’t the major headline. Harden has made it clear that he wants to leave the Rockets despite the front office making every possible thing happen for their biggest star. I am not sure if Harden at this stage can adapt quickly in any other system provided the level of ball possession he requires. But it’s no good to have a grumpy superstar in the locker room. Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni jumped ships with Stephen Silas becoming the new head coach. What a messy start for him. Rockets also added DeMarcus Cousins who is coming off a long injury. If Harden is traded before the trade deadline, which looks very likely, Rockets have no chance in the playoffs. On second thought, do they make the playoffs? Let’s wait and see how the Harden saga unfolds. If Harden stays and averages 30+, which is as much possible as the sun rising in the East, Rockets still wouldn’t go past the 2nd round.

Los Angeles Clippers

Clippers had a historic meltdown last season. All the “1,2,3.. Cancun” trash talk just backfired on Pat Bev and Paul George. Clippers’ biggest signing, Kawhi Leonard, one of the best clutch players in the world, got cold feet in Game 7. Paul George was a no-show. Playoff P, more like way off P. They let go of Doc and promoted Ty Lue as head coach. This is a revenge season. Paul George has to stop all the tantrums and show up in the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard can’t be indifferent any more. You want to compete with Lakers and LeBron, step up and be the leader like him. Be vocal, be expressive and most important be dominant as you are supposed to be. Pat Bev and Marcus Morris, enough with the trash talk, keep it after you win something. They have cleared the house and got Serge Ibaka which is a great addition and has experience of winning with Kawhi. This should be a revenge season. Chip or nothing. Steve Ballmer has put all his eggs in one basket. My prediction, Conference Finals at least. If they fall short, God help Clippers.

Los Angeles Lakers

“Washed-up” King and Brow led the Lakers to their 17th title last season. What a turnaround it has been for the Lakers. LeBron James, still at the peak of his power. Anthony Davis just unleashing himself and dominating the paint and shutting down the opposition. And now look at all the players they have added to the squad for the upcoming season. 6th man of the year, Montrezl Harrell, who jumped ships after Clippers’ humiliating loss but still is a great asset. Marc Gasol who can also shoot from the perimeter. Leading scorer off the bench, Dennis Schroder. Talen Horton-Tucker who showed in the preseason that he can ball. Wesley Matthews. We know there’s no better love story than LeBron and NBA Finals. AD will be a different beast as a champion, the one who has tasted blood and wants more. I don’t see how Lakers won’t repeat this season as well. Hands down, the favourites to win it all.

Spurs even with Pop, DeRozan and Aldridge don’t have a shot in this conference. Memphis, Kings, Thunder and Timberwolves are going to suffer the same fate this season.

This is going to be one hell of a season, something better and great than the ones in recent memory. Nothing better than ending 2020 by beginning such an exciting season. We all have our favourites but we have seen the last couple of seasons that everything is possible and nothing is predictable. So put on your alarms to rise to some great basketball. The new season starts 22nd Dec with KD facing his old team and an LA showdown. Brooklyn Nets face Golden State Warriors at 7 PM ET (23rd Dec 5:30 AM IST) and Los Angeles Lakers face Los Angeles Clippers at 10 PM ET (23rd Dec 8:30 AM IST). Go make your parents proud by waking up before sunrise on a chilly winter morning.

A sports fanatic who would like to discuss anything and everything on sports. Trying to express my views through my blogs.