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NBA 2020/21 Season Preview: Storylines, Playoff Picks and Award Winners

Last updated: 15 Dec 22:30

Everything To Play For

After an unprecedented “bubble” setting in Orlando to wrap up the 2019/20 NBA season, with the Los Angeles Lakers crowned as champions, the NBA moved quickly to set up the 2020/21 campaign to start in late December. For the Lakers, Miami Heat, and others who went deep into the bubble playoffs, this means a remarkably swift turnaround (the NBA Finals only wrapped up on October 11). For the eight teams that did not even take part in Orlando, there is a different, but equally unique, challenge of not playing a competitive game for more than eight months.

All of that adds an extra layer of intrigue ahead of a new NBA season (cut down to 72 games) that promises no shortage of highlights and drama, with all the associated betting opportunities along the way. We recap the brief yet action-packed offseason, walk through the Eastern and Western Conference storylines, and pick conference finalists, NBA champions, MVP, and more.

Recapping The Offseason
  • Bucks and Antetokounmpo agree five-year super max contract: All the speculation over Giannis Antetokounmpo’s future was brought to a grinding halt when the two-time MVP committed to the Milwaukee Bucks long-term in mid-December. A win-now trade for Jrue Holiday gives Antetokounmpo another All-Star level running mate as the Bucks look to bounce back from a second straight disappointing playoff exit.

  • Lakers strengthen for title defense: New deals for LeBron James and Anthony Davis were the top priority for the Los Angeles Lakers this offseason, They accomplished that and more, adding Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol and Wesley Matthews. The defending champions will take some stopping.

  • Paul George re-ups with Clippers: Some of the nail-biting tension for the LA Clippers this season has been reduced after George’s decision to add four years to his current deal. Now they just have to wait on Kawhi Leonard.

  • Harden on the move? With major front office and coaching changes for the Houston Rockets this offseason, it was perhaps unsurprising to see James Harden angling for a trade. This storyline could linger, with the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, and Toronto Raptors expected to lead the chase.

  • KD returns to kickstart new Brooklyn Nets era: After almost 18 months on the sidelines recovering from an Achilles injury, Kevin Durant will make his long-awaited debut in Brooklyn. With rookie coach Steve Nash and the unpredictable presence of Kyrie Irving, the Nets are sure to be entertaining.

  • Other meaningful offseason deals: The Phoenix Suns signalled their intent to get back into playoff contention with a trade for Chris Paul, the Washington Wizards swapped John Wall for Russell Westbrook, while the Charlotte Hornets turned heads with a monster contract for Gordon Hayward.

  • New era in Philadelphia: The 76ers moved quickly to agree terms with Doc Rivers after he parted ways with the Clippers, then turned the front office over to Daryl Morey. With fresh voices around them, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will have another shot to make a postseason run.

  • Warriors lose Thompson for the season…again: Just when the Golden State Warriors looked ready to challenge for another title, Klay Thompson’s torn Achilles came as a hammer blow.

Eastern Conference – What You Need To Know

Despite an underwhelming showing in Orlando, the Bucks remain the class of the Eastern Conference and received a huge boost with Antetokounmpo’s decision to commit to a super max contract. They were rolling along before the season stoppage and this is a far more dangerous team with Holiday and Khris Middleton flanking Antetokounmpo. But regular season dominance will count for little if Milwaukee cannot land a championship. The Miami Heat, who eliminated the Bucks and went on to reach the NBA Finals, bring back most of their core for another title run. A new contract for Bam Adebayo helps to keep their championship window wide open, while Tyler Herro is poised for a huge year after announcing himself with some fearless postseason performances.

While the Heat’s playoff pedigree is unquestionable, the Boston Celtics should be right in the mix for the number two seed behind the Bucks. Despite Hayward walking away in free agency, Boston saw Jayson Tatum reach new heights last season, with Jaylen Brown also ascending. Much will depend on how quickly Kemba Walker can recover from a nagging knee issue – he is already expected to be sidelined until mid-January. The Brooklyn Nets might be the toughest team to assess in the Eastern Conference, with so many unknowns – from Nash’s coaching to Durant’s health to Irving’s quirks, plus the potential for the Nets to go all-in with a trade for a third big name. Very few scenarios are off the table.

The Toronto Raptors were one of several teams eyeing a pitch to Antetokounmpo in the summer. Re-signing Fred VanVleet at a fair price was their offseason highlight, though it remains to be seen what the drop-off from Gasol and Serge Ibaka to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher will mean for Nick Nurse’s rotations. The Raptors have all the tools to be a tough playoff out again - as well as some intriguing pieces to dangle in trade talks. A fresh start for the 76ers hinges on the health of Embiid and Simmons. More perimeter shooting (Danny Green, Seth Curry) should give their star duo extra room to operate. If everything falls into place, Philadelphia are a sneaky dark horse to top the East.

The next tier of teams have plenty to prove. The Indiana Pacers replaced Nate McMillan with Nate Bjorkgren but it is hard to envision much improvement unless Victor Oladipo returns to All-Star form. The Pacers have the feel of a regression candidate, with in-season trades a possibility. This is a huge year for the Atlanta Hawks as they look to turn their potential into a playoff push. Trae Young and John Collins can have no excuses this year after the Hawks swooped for Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, in addition to Clint Capela, acquired last season. Legitimate defensive concerns are the most obvious reason for scepticism. Reuniting Westbrook with Scott Brooks should be a recipe for a more competitive Washington Wizards if the former can gel quickly with Bradley Beal. Bringing back sharpshooter Davis Bertans was a key offseason move.

If you are looking for a surprise playoff contender, the likeliest bets are the Detroit Pistons, despite a somewhat puzzling offseason, and the Charlotte Hornets. Both will be pushing hard for the postseason, even if that just means the number eight seed. The rebuilding Chicago Bulls have time on their side, though new head coach Billy Donovan should spark some immediate improvements.

After years of high draft picks, the Orlando Magic still appear stuck in the dreaded NBA middle ground – too good to tank, too limited to create any noise in the playoffs. Another season hovering below .500 likely awaits. As for the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers, it is all about the future, though a full season of Andre Drummond in Cleveland could help the Cavaliers spring some surprises.

Predicted Playoff Teams: Bucks, Celtics, Nets, 76ers, Raptors, Heat, Hawks, Wizards

Western Conference – What You Need To Know

The two Los Angeles teams are again expected to headline the Western Conference playoff race. The Lakers will have their sights set on repeating as NBA champions, with an impressive offseason only strengthening their chances. Even if they take a cautious approach with regular rest for James and Davis after such a short offseason break, they have the depth to stay in the hunt for the number one seed. The Clippers, meanwhile, have it all to prove, starting with the Leonard-George tandem that fell short in Orlando. Ty Lue has moved along the bench to replace Rivers, while Serge Ibaka will be asked to replace Harrell’s production. Like last year, anything short of a championship could lead to more overhaul in Clipperland.

The Denver Nuggets’ postseason heroics brought a much-needed boost to the final weeks in Orlando – and they are counting on continuity to keep them among the title contenders. Jamal Murray provide in the playoffs that he can be option 1A next to Nikola Jokic, thought the Nuggets will miss Jerami Grant’s do-it-all game. Like Denver, the Utah Jazz are banking on a fully healthy roster being enough to take the next step. Bojan Bogdanovic is back after missing the playoffs while Mike Conley is a good bet to bounce back strongly after a tough first year in Utah. Behind Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, the Jazz can still be a top four team in the West if everything breaks right.

The Portland Trail Blazers have a chance to make some real noise this season after filling their holes on the wing. Robert Covington will slot in effortlessly next to Damian Lillard, C.J, McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, with Carmelo Anthony seemingly ready to embrace a bench role. With good health, Portland could sneak into the top three in the West. Another candidate to make a leap are the Dallas Mavericks. With Luka Doncic calling the shots, the Mavericks are poised to blow past last season’s win percentage, especially if new addition Josh Richardson can rediscover his peak Miami Heat form. The return of Dwight Powell is a big plus for Dallas’ pick and roll offense too.

Meanwhile, Harden and Steph Curry are facing huge workloads and question marks around their supporting cast. The Rockets are refusing to budge on Harden’s reported trade request – instead focusing on building a playoff contender around Harden, Wall, PJ Tucker and Christian Wood. The Warriors have had to lower than expectations after losing Thompson for a second straight season, but Curry, a motivated Draymond Green, and the mercurial talents of Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre should keep Golden State in the mix. Though it would be no surprise if they have to settle for a lower seed.

The Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis Grizzlies, and New Orleans Pelicans are all in a similar boat, with a focus on chasing the playoffs while developing young talent. A full season of Zion Williamson will be must-watch viewing, while Ja Morant and the Grizzlies should be fueled by the early end to their Orlando experience. Keep an eye on Karl-Anthony Towns too, with the Timberwolves star poised for a monster year. Can he turn eye-popping stats into regular season wins?

The San Antonio Spurs are in an interesting spot, with Gregg Popovich likely to keep this roster competitive, at a time when securing a high draft pick might be the more valuable path. Still, even Popovich will struggle to keep the Spurs on the fringes of the playoff race. The Sacramento Kings have flashed potential but it is tough to see them cracking the top eight in the West unless De’Aaron Fox takes a major leap, while the Oklahoma City Thunder will likely be content to pile up losses while giving Shai Gilgeous-Alexander every chance to continue his growth.

Predicted Playoff Teams: Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, Mavericks, Jazz, Warriors, Suns, Blazers

Most Valuable Player (MVP)

The Pick: Doncic, Mavericks

With so many star duos around the league, Doncic will have the opportunity to stand apart as “the guy” in Dallas. Look for Doncic to bump up his averages in Year 3, especially after the Mavericks had a quiet offseason, and he will have the offense all to himself to start the campaign as Kristaps Porzingis recovers from a knee injury. While Antetokounmpo is sure to have terrific numbers once again, a fresh storyline could carry appeal with voters.

Defensive Player of the Year

The Pick: Antetokounmpo, Bucks

In a condensed season that will likely cause extra rest for the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, and Joel Embiid, the door is open for Antetokounmpo to repeat as Defensive Player of the Year. The Bucks should be a defensive juggernaut again this year, with Holiday’s perimeter defense adding to Milwaukee’s expert rim protection, and Antetokounmpo has a track record of highlight reel defensive plays. While he may not repeat as MVP, look for him to retain this one.

Coach of the Year

The Pick: Monty Williams, Suns

The Suns turned a corner with the way they played in the bubble. Now Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton get the benefit of sharing the court with Paul, the master playmaker. The Western Conference is loaded with talent, but Phoenix could still stand out as a feel-good story if Williams can lead them back to the playoffs.

NBA Champions

The Pick: Lakers over Bucks

A distraction-free Bucks team has a terrific opportunity to get over the hump and reach the NBA Finals, but we like the Lakers to get it done for a second straight season, especially after strong offseason upgrades that will take some of the burden off James and Davis.

Author:

Tom Oldfield

US Sports Specialist

Bio:

Tom is a freelancer sports writer, specializing in US sports, including the NFL, NBA and MLB. He brings 15 years of experience and is also the author of biographies on Cristiano Ronaldo and Rafael Nadal, as well as the Ultimate Football Heroes series.
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