The 2020-21 NBA season is approaching and we gathered intel from some of the top basketball minds covering the league. Today, we’ll look ahead to which teams are expected to overachieve and underachieve, make predictions on which players win key NBA awards, and what franchise will hold up the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season.
1. Which team will outperform expectations by the most and why?
Josh Eberley, HoopMag.com | @JoshEberley: I want to say the splashy Atlanta Hawks. Lloyd Pierce has a tough job navigating this rotation but I think they are a prime candidate to see internal growth and they’ve added a solid trio of players in Kris Dunn, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Danilo Gallinari to the core.
Brandon ‘Scoop B’ Robinson, Heavy.com | @ScoopB: The Washington Wizards. Russell Westbrook and Scott Brooks have something to prove. Westbrook has the chance to look good in a Wizards system this season in the same way that Chris Paul did with the Oklahoma City Thunder last season.
Zak Noble, Noble and Roosh Show | @ZakNoble: By Las Vegas standards the Cleveland Cavs are expected to finish dead last with a projected win total of 22.5. I say hammer the over. This is the year Collin Sexton turns into a winning player, Garland emerges and Okoro is a sleeper on the defensive side of the ball. With the leadership of Kevin Love. I think this team finishes in the top 12 of the Eastern Conference with hovering around .500 all year.
Ryan McNeill, Athletes Unfiltered | @RyanMcNeill: The Phoenix Suns. Ricky Rubio gave Phoenix their first legit point guard since Devin Booker joined the franchise and the team went 8-0 in the Orlando Bubble. Now that they have the Point God himself, Chris Paul, look for Phoenix to take another leap forward. Deandre Ayton will become one of the best young bigs in the NBA and Devin Booker will become a starting guard in the All-Star game, or, if that’s not played, then Booker will make his first All-NBA squad after the season. Jae Crowder was a sneaky smart add to bring toughness and the ideal small-ball forward. Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Dario Saric, E’Twaun Moore, and Jevon Carter provide depth. As long as Paul, Ayton, and Booker stay healthy, I’ll be shocked if they don’t have home court in the first round of the playoffs.
Chris Crouse, FortyEightMinutes.com | @NBACrouse: The Philadelphia 76ers. Many expect the Bucks, Nets, Celtics, and Heat to each finish ahead of the Sixers in the Eastern Conference standings. However, I wouldn’t be stunned if they ended up with a top-2 seed given their front office’s crafty offseason work surrounding their stars with the right complementary players.
2. Which team will be the biggest disappointment and why?
Eberley: The Utah Jazz. Once again they believe they are title contenders and I just don’t see it. If the goal was to answer playoff questions last year they failed miserably. I’m also unsure where the relationship is between their stars and could see Rudy Gobert’s pending extension being an issue.
Scoop: The Los Angeles Clippers. Personally, I think the top four teams in the NBA’s Western Conference will be: Lakers, Nuggets, Warriors, Mavericks.
Noble: This is a tough one, being I am an eternal optimist. I do think Memphis has a lot of aspirations with a Ja/ JJJ/ Clarke core, but I just don’t think their closing lineups will be up to par, and don’t think they will be in the playoff picture very long. I like the future of this team, but this isn’t their year. JJJ injury concerns to start the year also isn’t a very good look at all. I believe they will finish in the bottom 3 of the west.
McNeill: The Atlanta Hawks. Yes, they won the offseason (short as it was). But what did they do to solve the issues Trae Young‘s allergy to defense causes on the entire team? Kris Dunn is a nice add, but how is he going to get minutes? According to ESPN’s latest Depth Chart, Dunn is third at Point Guard and Small Forward. He’s fifth at Shooting Guard. Atlanta has to be hoping that Cam Reddish becomes the 3 and D star they envisioned when they drafted him… but he’s slotted as the backup small forward and third-string shooting guard. Minutes will be tough to find for Reddish and Dunn, despite the team desperately needing what they bring on the defensive end.
Crouse: The Indiana Pacers. The team has a new coaching staff and while they want to play faster, without a traditional training camp and preseason and without any major changes in the roster, implementing that will be a chore. That, plus Victor Oladipo seemingly entering the 2020-21 campaign with one foot out the door, could cause some turbulence for this stable central division franchise.
3. Who wins MVP?
Eberley: Luka Doncic
Scoop: LeBron James
Noble: Anthony Davis
McNeill: Chris Paul.
Crouse: Luka Doncic
McNeill on his pick: Yes, I know this will shock people, but wouldn’t Paul deserve this if he helps Phoenix make the playoffs for the first time in over a decade? What if he maintains his All-Star status while bringing Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker along with him? I think both of these things will happen. Hence Paul securing his first MVP in the twilight of his career. Securing home court in the first round would be an added bonus.
4. Who wins the Defensive Player of the Year award?
Eberley: Bam Adebayo
Scoop: Anthony Davis
Noble: Ben Simmons
McNeill: Anthony Davis.
Crouse: Anthony Davis
McNeill on his pick:
Last year Davis was robbed by the narrative of Giannis Antetokounmpo
being an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. Look for Davis to pull in monster numbers as LeBron James
sits out games for Load Management. I would be surprised if Davis doesn’t finish in the top five in blocks, rebounds, and steals.
5. Who wins the Rookie of the Year award?
Eberley: Killian Hayes
Scoop: LaMelo Ball
Noble: LaMelo Ball
McNeill: Obi Toppin
Crouse: Deni Avdija
Eberley on his pick: I think having the longest leash matters a ton in the race and I can see the Pistons letting Hayes do it all. In a tricky class with very few bets to get a huge workload, you have to like Hayes’ chances.
6. Who takes home the Sixth Man of the Year award?
Crouse on his pick:
Bertans didn’t quite get the recognition as one of the better options off the bench last season, in part, because the Wizards weren’t producing wins. That should change this season with Russell Westbrook
in town and an enhanced roster of playmakers. Bertans should thrive in the Wizards’ second-unit.
7. Who wins the Coach of the Year award?
Eberley: Steve Nash
Scoop: Monty Williams
Noble: Terry Stotts
McNeill: Monty Williams
Crouse: Doc Rivers
Eberley on his pick: I believe in the Nets, I think Kevin Durant is coming back strong and Nash already winning the erratic Kyrie Irving over is a huge win.
8. Most Improved?
Crouse on his pick:
I’ve flip-flopped back-and-forth between SGA and Markelle Fultz
for this spot more times than I can count. It’s not hard to envision Gilgeous-Alexander becoming All-Star worthy and running away with this award, though there’s also a scenario where a weakened supporting cast stunts his growth, at least in the eyes of media evaluators. In what is likely the most unpredictable award category, I’ll take Fultz—a long-shot with a storyline to carry his candidacy should he produce the numbers for it.
9. What will the NBA Finals matchup be? Who wins the Championship?
Eberley: Nets vs. Lakers. I’ve already spoken to my thoughts on the Nets but I won’t bet against a contending LeBron team again. The rich got richer and it’s hard to see them falling off.
Scoop: Los Angeles Lakers and the Milwaukee Bucks. Lakers repeating as Champion.
Noble: Lakers vs Nets. Lakers in 7
McNeill: The Los Angeles Lakers beat the Philadelphia 76ers. Seconds after typing that out I already hate my prediction. What if the Clippers obtain a pass-first point guard (Ricky Rubio?) to help get Kawhi Leonard and Paul George easy shots while taking the pressure off those two to create for other teammates? What happens if LeBron James or Anthony Davis miss the playoffs because of an injury? Right now, I love how Daryl Morey has rebuilt the 76ers with 3 and D players alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid… but what if he caves and trades Simmons to Houston for James Harden? Or, even worse, what if Pat Riley swoops in and steals Harden without giving up Bam Adebayo or Jimmy Butler? Gulp. Yeah, I hate Finals predictions before the opening tip of the season, but, gun to my head, I’m going with the Lakers over the Sixers. Begrudgingly.
Crouse: Lakers vs. Bucks. The addition of Jrue Holiday should elevate Milwaukee in the postseason, giving them another playmaker on offense and lock-down defender on the perimeter. The Bucks have the length and versatility to favorably matchup with any Eastern Conference opponent. While Milwaukee should conquer the East, LBJ & Co. should have no issues on their path to repeating as champs.