It will be an NBA season like no other.
From a 72-game schedule that we only know half of, to back-to-backs in the same city, to games played without fans, to all the player chaos around the league, we don’t have very much prior knowledge of what an NBA season like this one could look like.
That makes it all the more fool-hardy to make predictions about what will happen in the league this year — 2020 taught us to expect the unexpected, and here we are setting expectations. But, as tradition insists, we must go on with our annual ritual of trying to make sense of the league before it even starts. Here are The Tribune’s predictions for the 2020-21 NBA season.
MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo
I understand why you’d be skeptical about Giannis Antetokounmpo’s NBA MVP chances — no man has won MVP three seasons consecutively since Larry Bird did it in the mid-80s.
And yet, why would you bet against him? He just turned 26 last week. He plays for a coach who puts great emphasis on winning every regular season game, with Giannis at the core of everything. He’s still the guy that averaged about a point per minute last year, and w onthe league’s Defensive Player of the Year trophy to boot.
And his competition may not bring it. He still has much to prove — unlike LeBron James, who is broadcasting his intentions to coast through the year. James Harden clearly didn’t focus on basketball this summer. Can Steph do it without Klay? The Dallas wonderkid, Luka Doncic, might be Giannis’ biggest competition, but will voters be able to ignore the defensive gap? I say no: the Greek Freak will win MVP again.
Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau
The NBA’s Coach of the Year award is often given to the coach of the most surprising team. So while Ty Lue, Steve Nash, Erik Spoelstra, and Monty Williams top the list of candidates in Vegas this year, would anyone really be shocked if the Clippers, Nets, Heat, or Suns were better this year?
So let’s think outside of the box. What if the New York Knicks were even decent this year? Oh, sure, they likely won’t be. But if they are? They’re media darlings. Tom Thibodeau would get the COY vote in a snap.
Coach on the hot seat: Luke Walton
On the other hand, the first coach to be fired usually follows a predictable pattern — it’s the one losing the most games in a hopeful situation. Sacramento will likely disappoint, and quite frankly, Luke Walton isn’t a very good coach, by many accounts. I think he’s most likely to be fired first.
Team to beat: Los Angeles Lakers
It’s the Lakers, by a million miles. After a dominating playoff run, they got better, adding Wes Matthews, Marc Gasol, and Montrezl Harrell to the group. With depth to handle the challenges of COVID and complacency, only an injury could let the title slip out of the Lakers’ grasp this year.
Don’t sleep on: Portland Trail Blazers
Remember two seasons ago, when the Portland Trail Blazers made the Western Conference Finals on the back of a roster with Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, wing defenders, and Enes Kanter backing up Jusuf Nurkic? Well, after a bad season filled with of injuries and departures, now they have Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, wing defenders (thanks to new addition Robert Covington), and Enes Kanter backing up Jusuf Nurkic. It’ll probably go well.
Team you don’t want to play: Denver Nuggets
I’ve already mentioned the Lakers, so let’s give a shoutout to the Denver Nuggets, who just make the teams they play look silly. It may have been a 7-game series, but the vaunted Clippers were humiliated by the Nuggets — especially by Nikola Jokic’s over the head no look pass in the final minute of Game 7 to wrap up the blowout series win. With noted trickster Facundo Campazzo added to the mix, Nuggets opponents beware: you’ll be grasping at ghosts.
Most overrated team: Brooklyn Nets
While I have to congratulate the Nets on hiring a head coach — Steve Nash — whose last job was as a TV soccer commentator for Turner in their Champions League coverage, I do not think Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant (recovering from an Achilles tear!) will bring the on-court team play needed to do much of anything in the playoffs. Like the Clippers of 2019-20, the quality of play to headlines generated ratio will be low.
Most overrated player: Karl-Anthony Towns
It’s funny: I truly love KAT as a player. He’s one of the most skilled players in the league on the offensive end, and there’s really nothing he can’t do. He’s incredibly fun to watch. And yet I am still waiting for the day when he can lead his team on the defensive end — he really lapses in and out there. The love he showed for the game as a young player is harder to see now. I think he’ll recover and find a way to live up to his talent, but he’s not doing it right now.
Most underrated player: Kyle Lowry
It’s Kyle Lowry. With Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors finished second in the Eastern Conference. Without Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors finished... second in the Eastern Conference. And while Lowry is aging and is already losing speed, he’s come up with a bag of tricks to more than make up for it, a skillset league observers sometimes call “advanced BS.” Lowry is the master of the flop, the drawn foul, the sneaky steal, the unseen pass, and possesses absolute knowledge of every play on the floor.
Future household name: Ja Morant
Ja Morant has already earned the attention of the NBA last season by putting up a Rookie of the Year campaign, but he’s beginning to show off what he did with the offseason in Memphis, and it’s a bit frightening, with ability everywhere on the floor. The NBA fan already knows about Morant, but he’s going to get to that next tier of NBA-adjacent fame very soon.
Rookie of the year: LaMelo Ball
You don’t want to read too much into preseason play, but you can see who pops off the screen: LaMelo Ball. His passes and manipulation of a defense in space shows off that very special skill that only a few players have — the ability to get anyone on the floor to believe anything. He’s got a little bit of that Ben Simmons rookie year energy, to be sure.
Even with the Lakers’ stars resting games for much of the season, they have so much depth that they’ll be tough to beat — even one of LeBron James and Anthony Davis at a time is a handful. The Clippers figure to come up second, but don’t count out the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz from getting a top-2 seed: both teams know who they are, and execute it night in and night out. Continuity could rise to the top in a complicated year. After that, the Mavericks and Blazers’ additions get them to the 5th and 6th seeds, while two top-heavy rosters in Golden State and Phoenix with real weaknesses come in 7th and 8th. Houston tumbles out; Harden is likely traded.
There’s no reason to think the Milwaukee Bucks won’t be the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference once again, especially after getting Jrue Holiday in a trade this offseason. After that, there’s a litany of teams really good teams: the Celtics (albeit without Gordon Hayward), the Sixers (with new head coach Doc Rivers and new GM Daryl Morey), the Heat (NBA Finalist last season), and the Nets (with champions Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant). The Raptors will be unable to keep pace this season, while the Pacers will continue to eke out more wins than losses. The resurgent Hawks, with Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and John Collins leading the way, will round out the group.