By Alex R. ’23
The 2020/2021 NBA regular season is now under way, and there couldn’t be a better way to celebrate other than making bold and controversial predictions. At the beginning of last season, I had the Clippers as pre-season favorites to win it all. The Clippers had a stacked roster and I rated Doc Rivers very highly as a coach. I also had the Warriors down as genuine playoff contenders. Neither of these predictions came into fruition, and to be honest neither by a small margin. With that said, the salty part of me wants to point out that the Warriors were insanely unlucky to lose Steph Curry so early in the season, and as for the Clippers, well, they just choked really hard when it mattered. Seriously guys, you were up 3-1, had substantial leads in games 5 and 6, and just gave up and got crushed in game 7. Thus, a disclaimer: these predictions are to be taken lightly and with a grain of salt.
Could this be the year the East truly takes over as the better of the two conferences?
Over the past few years, there can be little argument as to which conference boasted the better teams. Headlined by the dominant force that was the Golden State Warriors, the Western Conference consistently had teams with better records in the playoffs. Look at the 2014-15 season for example: you’re telling me that the 38-44 Brooklyn Nets could make the playoffs in the East when the 45-37 Thunder couldn’t make it in the West? And what about when the 5th seeded Utah Jazz had the same record as the 2nd seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016-17 season? Things like this made it hard to take the Eastern Conference as a whole seriously for a while, but could this be the year that the power dynamic shifts in the other direction? Looking at the teams that could challenge for the title at the business end of the season, the East seems to have the edge over the West when it comes to serious title contenders. I look at the Milwaukee Bucks, a team eager to prove doubters wrong after disappointing postseasons in recent years; the Brooklyn Nets, with not only Kyrie and KD, but also insane squad depth; the Boston Celtics, an up-and-coming team with really great young talent with the likes of Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown; and dare I mention the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers who could come out of nowhere and surprise a lot of people. The way I see it, this is the East’s year to shine and to take the “best conference” throne away from its counterpart.
Who’s in the MVP conversation?
In terms of the preseason MVP conversation, there are a few names that are just a given at this point; think Lebron James, Giannis, Harden etc. With that said, there have been a few players who’ve shown so far this season that they really deserve to be among the shoe-in favorites listed above.
Steph Curry: After a dazzling 62 point display against the Blazers, Steph reminded a lot of people why he already has two MVP awards, including his unanimous win in the 14-15 season. The question will be whether or not he’ll be able to be consistent enough when it comes to his trademark shooting displays that won him his precious two awards. If he is consistent enough and perhaps even propels the Warriors into contention for a 6-7 seed in the playoffs as a bonus, it’s going to be tough not to consider him.
Nikola Jokic: When was the last time there was a big man capable of putting up triple doubles the way Jokic has so far this season? I mean seriously, a center getting 18 assists on top of 12 boards and 19 points is just insane. His passing ability is incredible and has now become one of the most fun players to watch in the league despite not wielding the handles of an elite point guard or the shooting ability of a premier sharpshooter like Steph Curry or Klay Thomson. Keep an eye out for my guy because he could make some serious noise this season.
Luka Doncic: Another player finding himself putting up insane numbers for fun, Luka is more than capable of making the jump into superstardom this season. I feel like a lot of people need to be reminded that this guy is still only 21 and is already one of the best guards in the league. With the pieces in place for the Mavericks to get back into the playoffs, Luka could be the spark to perhaps even propel them beyond the first or second round.
Kevin Durant: When KD got hurt a couple seasons ago and was facing significant time on the sidelines, I didn’t find myself concerned about his ability to make it back to the top once he was back to 100%. Being the proven scorer that he is, look for him to improve on other aspects of his game this season. I think he’ll bounce back strong and maybe even finish one of the top scorers in the league by the end of the season.
Jason Tatum: This is a player I really admire, and like Luka he’s incredibly young with a really high ceiling. Having really exploded onto the scene last season, look for Tatum to continue that upward trajectory and to become a more consistent perimeter shooting threat in the months ahead.
All of these players are bound to be All-Stars this season and are likely going to get close to first team all NBA selections following the conclusion of the season. I will say there are some notable absences, but these are the players I’ll certainly have my money on to bring home the trophy come next spring/summer.
What about Rookie of the Year?
Several rookies have gotten off to really impressive starts to the season, but for me it boils down to two players. To the surprise of no one these two players are Anthony Edwards and James Wisemen. I thought about Lamelo and what he might be able to do this season, but I just don’t know if he’s quite at the level of Edwards and Wisemen. Sure he’s an immense talent, and I could very well regret saying this, but I think he’ll end up taking longer to adjust to the demands of the NBA. The talent possessed by the other two is just as remarkable, notably Wisemen’s length and athleticism and Edward’s ability to drive past anyone and finish at the rim in style. Both have made immediate impacts on their respective teams, with Wisemen becoming the established number one big man in Golden State and Edwards proving why he was the number one prospect coming out of last year’s draft class with impressive performances coming off the bench for the Timberwolves. In the end though, my pick is Wisemen. I mean, the guy is already being compared to Giannas and for good reason. His athleticism for someone of his height is extraordinary. Also, who would’ve expected him to start the season off so well from 3 point range, shooting over 40% as of the 8th of January. If he starts getting in less foul trouble, he’ll get more minutes to show the league what he can do.
What will the East and West look like come the business end of the season?
These might be the more controversial of my predictions, given how they are so likely to be proven wrong come April (or whenever the playoffs are going to be this season).
I think the Bucks and the Nets will be the top two to emerge from the East. As previously mentioned, the Nets have really good depth in their squad, with players like Chris Levert, Deandre Jordan and Joe Harris not even starting when they’re at full strength. I also think Steve Nash might be able to pull off a “Steve Kerr,” in that he’ll surprise the league and learn important lessons for when the playoffs come around. With the Bucks, I believe they’ll continue to do well during the regular season, coming off of last season when they had the best record in the league.
For me, the Celtics, the Pacers, and the Sixers are the next in line. The Celtics are an exciting team that will only get better, while the Sixers will benefit significantly from Doc Rivers being their new coach. As for the Pacers, I think they are a team who can surprise a lot of people this year. Highlighted by Malcom Brogden and Domantas Sabonis’ insane start to the season, the Pacers are another team that will get better with time. Victor Oladipo will eventually get back to his best and look to TJ Warren to build off of his incredible run during the latter stages of last season.
The six, seven, and eight seeds in the East is where it gets tricky. Like I said earlier, I expect the East to be really strong this season, meaning these final playoff spots are going to be contested among good teams. I think both Florida teams will get in. The Heat in particular are an interesting one, in that the production of Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro, and Bam Adebayo will be make or break for them. As for the Magic, I look for them to continue their good start to the season and get in, but only just. They’ll likely face fierce competition from another team who’ve started the season really well and has the pieces to put together a strong playoff bid, the Cleveland Cavaliers. With Collin Sexton and Andre Drummond putting up good numbers so far, the Cavs are out of nowhere looking surprisingly good.
My top three in the West are all teams with something to prove coming into this season. The Lakers will be looking to retain their title and prove to people (like me) that last season’s win in the NBA bubble doesn’t deserve a big fat asterisk next to it. The Suns are a team who’ve played really well so far this season and will be looking to assert themselves as a real powerhouse in the West this season. With the arrival of Chris Paul and with Devon Booker looking like a man on a mission, the Suns could really put people on notice if they can be consistent enough this season. My three seed likely has the most to prove: can Kawai, Paul George and the Clippers rebound after last season’s embarrassment? I think they can and they will if Paul George keeps playing at his highest level and if players like Patrick Bevearly and Serge Ibaka can continue to contribute meaningfully.
I believe that the next three teams in the west will overcome mediocre starts and emerge as solidified playoff teams. These teams are the Denver Nuggets, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Portland Trailblazers. Jokic and Murray are players who are more than capable of carrying a team to wins, and it’s not like there’s a serious lack of depth in Denver either. Doncic and Porzingis are one of my most intriguing partnerships in the league, and I think with them both fit and firing, the Mavericks would be hard to count out. Lastly, the Blazers would just need to play the way we all know they can play for most of the season. With one of the best backcourts in the league in Lillard and McCollum (who has a pretty cool podcast by the way), consistency is the key.
The last two spots in the West are going to be really fiercely contested, but at the end of the day I think that the Jazz and the Warriors will be the ones to emerge as the seven and eight seed respectively. I think Donovin Michell is seriously underrated, with Rudy Gobert also being a really good player. Also, there seems to be something about the Jazz and how they somehow always find a way to get into the playoffs. As for the Dubs, the main reason for them to be involved in the playoffs comes down to one man. Not Steph, not Wisemen, not Draymond, but Steve Kerr. There’s a reason why the Warriors have been so dominant in recent years. Sure Steph being MVP a couple times helps, as does Klay emerging as one of the best shooters of all time, and KD was also pretty good when he came through. However as fans of certain teams have found out the hard way in recent seasons, star power alone cannot propel you to championships. Steve Kerr came in and established a culture around Golden State that provided the platform for success. Having been a quiet contributor for the legendary Bulls teams featured in The Last Dance (highly recommended by the way, if you haven’t seen it), he knows how to allow superstars to be at their best. I give him a lot of credit when it comes to the success that stars on the Warriors have had recently. While this season’s Warriors may not be as star studded as in years past, Steve will have learned lessons from last season; lessons about working with younger players, and about how to learn from losing. With that in mind I think the Warriors are capable of doing just enough to get in this year, and don’t be so surprised if they do more than that.
My Final Projections:
MVP: Giannis Antentokounmpo
ROY: James Wisemen
- The Brooklyn Nets
- The Milwaukee Bucks
- The Boston Celtics
- The Indiana Pacers
- The Philadelphia 76ers
- The Miami Heat
- The Orlando Magic
- The Cleveland Cavaliers
- The Los Angeles Lakers
- The Phoenix Suns
- The Los Angeles Clippers
- The Denver Nuggets
- The Dallas Mavericks
- The Portland Trailblazers
- The Utah Jazz
- The Golden State Warriors