COVID-19 really put a damper on the 2020 NBA season. The season was delayed right when it was getting good. The almost four-month break happened right as the playoff push was heating up. After the break, the top 22 teams returned for a quick eight-game push to determine playoff seeding. With the playoffs in a “bubble” in Orlando, it seemed destined that the L.A. Lakers would finish this unique season off with a championship in the same year that we tragically lost Kobe Bryant.
With the NBA Finals wrapping up in mid-October this year, the players only have about a two-month off-season before the 2020-2021 pre-season begins on December 11th and the regular-season opener on December 22nd. And we can’t forget about the 2020 NBA Draft that just happened in early November. The NBA is looking to take cues from Major League Baseball and pack more games into a shorter season in an attempt to complete a 72 game schedule. Although they will start 2 months later than normal, the NBA plans to still have the playoffs in June of 2021. The postponed 2020 Summer Olympics are scheduled to begin in the summer of 2021, and the NBA finishing their season on time does two things. First, it allows NBA players to practice and compete with their home country Olympic teams without creating a conflict for them, and also eliminates a broadcast conflict on television between the NBA Playoffs and the Olympics.
Eastern Conference Preview
The Atlantic is a deep division going into the 2021 season, with the Raptors remaining the favorite. Both Boston and Brooklyn have made significant moves to either acquire talent or lock up existing talent to remain competitive. The Toronto Raptors lost Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka to free agency, but re-signed Fred VanVleet to a new four-year contract and remain in the running for the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetekoumpo. Brooklyn made some huge moves in the off-season, going out and grabbing Kevin Durant to join Kyrie Irving on the court, and the surprise move of signing Hall of Famer Steve Nash to his first professional coaching job to be their head coach.
The Milwaukee Bucks had the best record in the Eastern Division last season but were bounced from the playoffs in disappointing fashion. With back-to-back NBA MVP Giannis Antetekoumpo still technically a Buck and the addition of Jrue Holiday via a massive four-team trade, the fate of the Bucks lies in whether they can convince the Greek Freak to sign a massive 5 year, $228 million supermax contract extension. If they can, they remain the favorite in the Central Division and the entire Eastern Conference. If Giannis decides to take his talents elsewhere, the Bucks become a run-of-the-mill team again.
The Southeast Division was dominated by Miami last season and by all accounts, it’s their division to lose in 2021. But they will have an eye on their rearview mirror with up and coming teams like Charlotte and Atlanta building for potential playoff runs. Charlotte signed Gordon Hayward to a four-year, $120 million contract that left some people scratching their heads. But if Hayward can offer them 20-6-5 per game, he might be worth it. Atlanta has their franchise player in Trae Young, but they still need significant pieces around him if they are going to compete.
Western Conference Preview
The Northwest Division is a toss-up. Last season the top three spots in the division were separated by just 1.5 games. It’s likely that Oklahoma City is in full rebuild mode after they’ve let go Chris Paul and Steven Adams this offseason. They are not likely to finish atop the division again this season. That means that Utah and Denver will likely compete for the top spot in the division. But keep your eyes on the Portland Trail Blazers, who had an excellent offseason. They re-signed future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony and added young big man Harry Giles inside to complement Melo and Damian Lillard outside.
The Pacific Division might as well be called the Los Angeles Division. The NBA Champion L.A. Lakers are likely to return big man Anthony Davis which will lessen the loss of Dwight Howard. The L.A. Clippers have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and may be just one piece away from competing with the Lakers. The Golden State Warriors’ fall from grace last season will likely continue in 2021 with the news that Klay Thompson will be out the entire season with a right Achilles tear.
Houston is a mess. They will likely lose their two biggest stars, James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Both are publicly unhappy with their situations in Houston. Houston did sign DeMarcus Cousins in the off-season, but he has to prove that he is the big-time big man that he had the potential to be. Don’t look now, but the Dallas Mavericks had the most efficient offense in NBA history last year. They have all-world talent Luka Doncic teamed up with Kristaps Porzingas in a powerful 1-2 combination. If they find some secondary pieces that can step up, Dallas will be a team to watch.
The L.A. teams remain the favorites to make a run at a championship again this year. The Lakers and Clippers may be destined to meet in the Western Conference Championship. But who will step up in the East? If the Bucks keep Giannis, they are the favorites. But Brooklyn is putting together a strong starting lineup. If they end up with James Harden, look out. But a lot in Brooklyn depends on what kind of coach Steve Nash is, and how the players react to him.