NBA 2020-21 Season Preview: WE’RE BACK BABY!!!

Intro’s are lame. Let’s kick it.

Eastern Conference

  1. Milwaukee Bucks – Spare me your, “the Bucks are overrated and Giannis isn’t built for the playoffs,” takes. Yes, this team does need to answer some questions this postseason. But the Greek Freak is built to sustain regular season play with the physical pain he inflicts on opposing teams on a nightly basis. Add in total boss Khris Middleton and a cast of role players who can hit catch-and-shoot threes + won’t get caught doing dumb stuff, and you have a likely 58-14 team that locks up the one seed for a third year in a row.
  2. Brooklyn Nets – Just like a critical Chargers’ coaching error, my preseason Nets optimism was bound to happen. I freaking love Kevin Durant. The man is a walking efficient shot chart. Here are his teams’ ranks in offensive rating the past decade in seasons where he did not suffer an injury: 1st, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 5th, 6th, 12th (back in 2010 when he was 21 years-old lol). He’s looked slim reaper smooth in the preseason yet again, and I’m fully buying in. No matter what you think of Kyrie Irving, he’s a difficult shot master come playoff time, and this Brooklyn squad has real, NBA rotation players one through 11. They’re gonna rock out.
  3. Boston Celtics – I’m really unsure of what to do with the three through six slots in the East. Gordon Hayward leaving and Kemba Walker missing time with injury will be (checks notes) very bad for their offense, but give Brad Stevens the defensive conglomerate of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart at the wings and he’ll figure out the rest. They’ve also beefed up the center rotation behind Daniel Theis with Tristan Thompson and a hopefully improved Robert Williams (long may the Time Lord rein). I’m worried about their potency come playoff time, but betting on a complete drop off from the C’s seems foolish.
  4. Philadelphia 76ers – Many words have been written by my Sixers on the much better website Liberty Ballers, including this preseason predictions roundtable I took part in, and this mega preview from the GOAT Tom West. I like the acquisitions of Seth Curry, Danny Green and Tyrese Maxey a lot, but I think high end expectations should be tempered. But regardless, there’s only one thing to truly say.

5. Miami Heat – Calm down Miami blogger man and/or old-school Jimmy Butler enthusiast. The Heat are very good and could most definitely beat my Sixers in this hypothetical playoff matchup. Heck, a repeat as conference champs is a realistic outcome. Newsflash, the top six teams in the East can all do this! They’re good and there’s no outlier great team! Duncan Robinson is an off-movement shooting demigod, and Tyler Herro’s stroke sure looks real, but the rest of their team also shot at unsustainably high rates during the regular season (I’m looking at you Meyers Leonard), so that likely comes back to earth. Bam Adebayo rules and keeps the defense humming with his versatility, but I’m just not sold on this being a guaranteed deep playoff team. The Heat finished 5th in the East last season too, so this might not even matter.

6. Toronto Raptors – Again, totally lost on three through six out East. Losing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka hurts (even if the Aron Baynes mania is something I can easily get behind) and opponents are unlikely to shoot as poorly on threes as they did last year against the Raps. But it wasn’t all luck, as Nick Nurse’s mad scientist strategies crossed with lanky crosscourt sprinter Pascal Siakam and big butt, bigger heart Kyle Lowry makes half court offense unbearable for NBA foes on a nightly basis. The definitely lack the upper tier shot creation needed to be a true Eastern Conference contender, and I feel like the drop-off in regular season wins has to come at some point for this squad, but you’re far from crazy if you think they could finish as high as 2nd place in the standings.

7. Indiana Pacers – Someone trade for Myles Turner. The Pacers’ offense is more fun when it’s Domas + four perimeter movers, and Turner can be a great piece in the right context. Their core of Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon, TJ Warren and the two big’s is too talented for a drop off, but things just feel blah in Indiana. I’m calling for a quick disposal of the 10-seed in the play-in tourney followed by the mandatory demoralizing Pacers got swept series at the hands of the Nets in the round of eight.

8. Washington Wizards – Long time readers no I’m not a Russell Westbrook supporter, but regardless I loved the swap for the Wiz. Passing out of spread pick and rolls are the most enjoyable facet of Russ’s game, and Washington will provide him with outside threats in Bertans, Beal, and (maybe) Deni Avdija or Rui Hachimura. Beal can create his own shot like a boss, Isaac Bonga has magnets for hands and Troy Brown Jr. can run a bench offense well with his creative distributing. At the very least, this is a fun and frisky first round out. Enjoy this glorious picture of current Wizard and former Laker Thomas Bryant in the mean time.

9. Atlanta Hawks – Great offseason for the big birdies. Onyeka Okongwu’s fit in the front court with Clint Capela and John Collins is a bit messy, but he’s going to be awesome in spread pick and rolls with Trae Young. The curly haired point guard is still a net positive despite his being the worst defender in the league, simply because his offensive creation is that potent. He’s one of the best passers alive, and can dribble anywhere on the court with his jitterbug speed. Bogdan Bogdanovic as a tertiary shot creator rocks, as does Danilo Gallinari, who according to my very flawed data science final project was one of the most consistent scorers in the NBA last season (B’s get degrees baby).

I’ve also been happily surprised by Cam Reddish, who came on at the end of last pre-pandemic season, and established himself as a defensive menace with monster hands. Play-in this year, playoff contender soon to come.

10. Orlando Magic – Jonathan Isaac out = not a fun team to watch. It hurt me to slot them above a much cooler team in the Hornets, but the infrastructure is simply too strong. Nikola Vucevic plus competent wings and guards is a perfect formula for 35-37 in this shortened season. Chuma Okeke and Cole Anthony should be fun though.

11. Charlotte Hornets – Hayward contract aside, this offseason was a huge success for Charlotte, drafting my top prospect in LaMelo Ball, a genius passer with size and speed. He’ll probably be an overall negative this season (as almost every non-transcendent rookie is), but the offense will have some juice with him at the helm. Barring a gigantic leap from one of PJ Washington or Miles Bridges, this probably isn’t the year for them to boogie in the playoffs, but the vibes are off the charts.

12. Chicago Bulls – Pat Williams looked great in the preason, which is a huge plus for the Bulls, but I just can’t talk myself into these pieces coalescing into anything great. I think the “Zach LaVine as a primary decision maker” train has run its course, and it’s time to transition to something else. A fun team who could definitely make the play-in at the 10 seed should Coby White build on his torrid February shooting stretch or Wendell Carter Jr. capitalize his athletic-passing hub potential as a big man, but something like 29-43 feels about right for this team.

13. Detroit Pistons – (Looks back at the Pistons’ free agent signings)

Mason Plumlee for three years and $25 million (weird considering he hurt Denver in the playoffs but okay), Jahlil Okafor to a vet minimum (I mean he’s really bad and you don’t need another center, but at least it’s cheap) and Jerami Grant for three years, $60 MILLION because he thinks he can be a ball-handling star for you (sound the sickos alarm bells). They won’t be dreadful as long as they keep a looking-better-than-expected-in-preseason Blake Griffin and super sixth man Derrick Rose, plus Killian Hayes at No. 7 is a stellar pick, as he’ll mesh great with another super creative passer in Blake. But this team finished on a 9-30 blitz for a reason last year. They’re not good and will not be competing for a play-in spot.

14. Cleveland Cavaliers – I was not in on Isaac Okoro at the start of draft process but slowly got sucked in due to awesome pieces such as this 5,000 word epic by the incomparable Henry Ward. He’s a great fit and immediately becomes Cleveland’s best defender (the equivalent of saying water is wet, but still). I’m definitely not sold on Collin Sexton long-term, as his high volume scoring comes at the cost of several shot attempts that look like this prior to release.

As ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted yesterday in his season preview, Sexton-Garland-Okoro-Love-Drummond lineups are potent enough offensively that incompetent basketball should be avoid, but points will still be bled when opponents possess the ball.

15. New York Knicks – It can’t be any worse than last year, said man about to be hit with another Julius Randle spin move into triple coverage. In all seriousness, I still believe in the talent and get-to-the-rim-ness of RJ Barrett, and rookies Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley will open up the floor a bit, even if they’re not my cup of tea as long term prospects. Trading Randle and letting the young guys try stuff out is definitely the move here, as is prayers that the draft gods have mercy and allow NYK to get their hands on the long-promised prince Cade Cunningham.

Western Conference

  1. Los Angeles Lakers – I may have wandered off course when picking a champ right before the playoffs, but I did pick the purple and gold to take home the title in last year’s stupid Dan Olinger preview. LeBron James + Anthony Davis + combination of guys who aren’t trash = a more than decent shot at the title. The annihilation of Montrezl Harrell positivity this past postseason undersold his boost as a free agent addition. He’ll eat up regular season minutes and give good offensive juice, as will sixth man runner-up Dennis Schroeder. I haven’t even mentioned preseason hero Talen Horton-Tucker, he of square body and Waluwigi arms. They are defending champs who did not get worse. That’s what it comes down to.
  2. Los Angeles Clippers – Look past the nadir of last season’s playoff exit and remember that LAC still looked like a terrifying beast in their best moments. Kawhi (while still just a hair overrated in historical legacy in my opinion based on who you ask) still powers good offense with his shot creation for both himself and others, while Paul George eats up productive minutes on both ends of the court. Serge Ibaka as a floor-spacing five is muy interesante, and I really like the Luke Kennard addition as an efficient shot creator off the bench. I’m not convinced they have much of a chance against the Lakers, mainly due to the rough mathematical inequality that LeBron > Kawhi and Anthony Davis > Paul George, but the baseline for winning basketball remains.
  3. Denver Nuggets – I try to not let personal bball preferences influence my decisions too much, but I can’t help it when it comes to Nikola Jokic. I’ve been in love since Zach Lowe brought him to my attention as a young high schooler in his annual Luke Walton all-stars column, and since then, he’s evolved into one of the most clutch players in basketball and the best passing big man of all-time (yes he’s better than Bill Walton, get over it). Jamal Murray will drop off from his herculean 48 percent mark from three, and despite his supernova bubble profile, he barely cracked the top 60 in points per game with 18.5 ppg in the regular season. Losing Jerami Grant hurts, but he was a huge negative from a Net rating standpoint pre-bubble, and JaMychal Green accomplishes about 85 percent of what Grant provided pretty easily. At the end of the day, this is about the infallible Joker, who whips out stuff like this in a gosh darn preseason game.

Keep slinging these lasers you thick king.

4. Portland Trail Blazers – Forget last season where injuries, questionable offseason moves and an unhealthy dose of Hassan Whiteside ruined all of Portland’s vibes pre-bubble. The Blazers previously finished third in the West in back-to-back years, and finally got a forward who can both shoot and defend in Robert Covington. I’m not a Dame-over-Steph blasphemer, but man oh man is Lillard a great basketball player. I’m really intrigued at the super-charged shooting lineup of Lillard-McCollum-Trent-Covington-Nurkic, with the Bosnian Beast hammering dudes on high ball screens left and right. This still isn’t anything more than a second round exit in my eyes, but a top six finish in the West should not only be desired but expected with this squad.

5. Dallas Mavericks – I flipped the Mavs and the Jazz between 5th and 6th about 10.4 billion times in my idiotic brain, but in the end I’m betting on Luka Doncic. His current trajectory pits him as an all-time great, considering he made first team all-NBA as a 21 year-old and captained the most efficient offense in NBA history last year. The Mavs’ point differential last season pointed to them being better than the 7th seed in the West, and they proved it in the playoffs when they gave the Clippers all they could have asked for in the first round. Kristaps Porzingis being out likely through the end of January smarts, as does Dwight Powell returning from an achilles injury trying to step in for KP, but Luka plus three starter level wings in Hardaway Jr, Josh Richardson and Dorian Finney-Smith gives them enough logical structure for me to feel confident in their ascendance.

6. Utah Jazz – A very good team one through eight, especially with the return of backup center extraordinaire Derrick Favors (and maybe even through nine with second round pick Elijah Hughes who I like a lot). Mitchell bounced back from his not totally great regular season to go crazy in the Denver series, and Gobert is still a top-10 defense unto himself, no matter what the memes may say. I’m a bit worried that a “things have run their course” vibe might set in if the Jazz fall in the first or second round for the fifth season in a row, but if just a couple of things bounce right, and Utah could find themselves matched up with the Lakers in the conference finals. Honestly, any team two through six could find themselves in that position given the randomness of every season and the awesomeness of all five of these competitors. But, if I had to say the least likely of those five to nab that opposing WCF spot, it’s unfortunately the boys from Salt Lake.

7. Phoenix Suns – I really, really wanted to put them in the top six. The uniforms are dope. Chris Paul carries over the philosophical goodness of the Ricky Rubio addition from last season but with greater talent and scoring upside. Devin Booker is at the very least a top 20 player and could very likely crack an all-NBA team this season. But some steps still need to be taken. Deandre Ayton protects the rim well and has soft touch on shots, but he has to stop passing up scoring opportunities two feet away from the rim. Mikal Bridges needs to travel back in time and recapture his Villanova shot form to unlock his potential as one of the greatest three-and-D role players ever. The rest of the roster is filled with fun, mainly offense-first guys in Jae Crowder, Cam Johnson, Cam Payne and Dario Saric, though the pick of Jalen Smith at 10 was questionable to say the least (see: Smith didn’t have enough lateral quickness to shake Jared Dudley on a dribble move on the perimeter, very dark stuff). They should smash the 10 seed and establish themselves as a better-than-average team for the foreseeable future, but this is a classic one-year-away type of squad.

8. Memphis Grizzlies – I was drinking the “Grizzlies probably got a little lucky last season and will take a step back in 2020-21” cool-aid for a long time. But as I kept looking at their peers in the West, I couldn’t help but put them up here at 8th. Ja Morant looks like he somehow improved on his hyper-athletic passing game, and the Grizz will offset the lack of Jaren Jackson Jr. in the early part of the season with improvements from De’Anthony Melton and Brandon Clarke plus two draft steals in Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman. They’re young, fast and play smart basketball under Taylor Jenkins. I’m betting this isn’t last year’s Kings, but a future contender for the next decade on the rise.

9. Golden State Warriors – I love Steph Curry. He’s a top-15 all-time player, full stop. The Warriors were also dreadfully bad last year. Draymond Green is a dynamo given toys to superstar offensive toys to play with, but give him non-shooters who need some help and he more closely resembles someone jamming the square peg in the round hole. Kelly Oubre, our beloved Tsunami Papi, is a great get for the resources they had at their disposal, but he’s similar to Wiggins in that he doesn’t space the floor too well, relies a lot on explosive cuts and iso’s, and is an overall minus on defense. James Wiseman isn’t a disaster, but he’s also not a savior. The upside is always there with a transcendent talent like Steph, but unlike former teammate Durant, he’s not a 7-foot wing who can get whatever shot he wants no matter the pieces and context surrounding him, and I think the Warriors are merely a good team this year, not a great one (P.S. Warriors-Grizzlies in a play-in game would be a ROLLICKING good time).

10. New Orleans Pelicans – I was much lower on them all of last season than most pundits (and was proved right), as I’ve just never been fully blown away by the talents whose last names don’t rhyme with “Billiamson”. Brandon Ingram fills up the stat sheet with a respectable shot and loping, creative strides to the rim, but the Pelicans half court offense was still very queasy no matter how much he scored. Lonzo Ball feels hit or miss night-to-night. Trading Jrue Holiday, while certainly a smart move given the draft capital they bought, hurts. But Zion is really, really special. The bubble sucked for him, but he’s still the basketball equivalent of Shazam, a hulking beast who doesn’t need to jump high in the air so long as he jumps more quickly, leaving his feet before the defenders arounds him have comprehended their impending doom. I also LOVE the Kira Lewis draft pick at 13, as he instantly provides them a rotation guard who plays hard, makes shots and makes smart passes. Betting on Zion to drag New Orleans to the last-playoff spot is one I’m willing to make.

11. Houston Rockets – Feels like something has to happen in regards to James Harden, and him being traded immediately changes the outlook for both Houston and whoever acquires his talents. Should the Rockets somehow work through this, bump the Pels down and move this team up into the top 10. Any other analysis feels weird and incomplete at this point.

12. Sacramento Kings – Losing Bogdan Bogdanovic hurts. He creates good offense and doesn’t require an overbearing amount to be run through him in terms of designed action. De’Aaron Fox is a great guy and a fascinating player, but I’m really worried about how his shot looked in preseason. He fell back from 37 to 31 percent from three this past season after his sophomore bump, and I want to see him get it back up to league average level for me to feel more comfortable about him as a future, franchise building star. Buddy Hield takes a lot of threes and makes plenty, but his lack of doing much else all that well concerns me. Richaun Holmes is a vibe king but not a *stellar* defensive big. Marvin Bagley can bounce but is unfortunately never healthy. Tyrese Haliburton was a great pick for their context, but he’s really just awesome role player in a starting lineup rather than a ceiling-raising star. I could be talked into them as a top 10 team in the West, but I need to see it first after last year’s slump.

13. San Antonio Spurs – Devin Vassell was a steal at 11, and this tweet of mine gave me a mini-cult following of Spurs fans (much appreciated).

Vassell’s shot looks weird but falls through the hoop more than enough, and on defense he combines quickness and size with genius-level off-ball understanding. The guard trifecta of Derrick White, Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker gives them some juice, but until they get away from the endless 18-footer offense brought on by DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, this is nothing more than a team that loses more than they win without losing respect. Play Jakob Poeltl, one of Vassell or Keldon Johnson, and the three young guards and blitz teams with your athleticism. At the very least more people would watch said lineups.

14. Minnesota Timberwolves – Sample size so small there’s no reason to draw a conclusion of course, but I do like to point out that D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns surrendered a defensive rating of 143 points allowed per 100 possessions in the one game they shared the court last season. I’m also worried about top pick Anthony Edwards right now. He’s probably fine long term simply because he’s an athletic freak whose shot isn’t totally broken, but let’s just say I think his preseason averages of 12.3 field goal attempts per game on sub 30 percent shooting may be an indicator of him not contributing to winning basketball in the games that count. I love KAT offensively, as he’s legitimately the most-skilled shooting 7-footer we’ve probably ever seen, but I just don’t buy this as a playoff team.

15. Oklahoma City Thunder – Tanking, but still funky as can be. Shai-Gilgeous Alexander will be a fun watch as he’s given the keys to an NBA offense, and rookie Aleksej Pokusevski accomplishes the goal of helping OKC suck this year while also making their future bright simultaneously. He’s a 7-foot, 190-pound string bean of unbridled confidence who moves and dribbles like a 6-footer, willing to try any shot conceivable to the human brain. Watch this funky video to lift your Poku spirits.

Three Award picks if you’re into that

MVP – Kevin Durant (Really struggled on this one for a multitude of reasons. At different times I’d written down LeBron, Dame and even Nikola Jokic’s names. But in the end, I’m banking on the KD revenge tour. 50-40-90 shooting splits on 28.5 ppg let’s get it).

Rookie of the Year – Killian Hayes (LaMelo is my favorite prospect by far, but sticklers will get real mad at some of his box scores, and he has other guards to compete with in the starting lineup. Killian is getting the starting spot right away and will be solid all year. He’s good too).

Defensive Player of the Year – Anthony Davis (Lol he’s unreal).

20-team Playoff bracket lol

Yes, I know the play-in tournament doesn’t work exactly like that. Editing is hard, especially when you’re an idiot like me. Have a wonderful season everybody, and a happy new year.