The 2020-21 NBA season has already been full of surprises. James Harden has been traded to the Brooklyn Nets, forming a new super team with stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Toronto Raptors won a championship in 2019 and currently sit at 5-9. The Golden State Warriors, led by two-time MVP Steph Curry, appear to be back – Curry at least showed he is by scoring a career-high 62 points in a game in January.
And, of course, looming ominously over all of the entertaining aspects of the season is the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide surge in cases in the United States will always make simply playing games tenuous.
Bad news aside, the NBA also has many reasons for excitement – the league is more competitive than ever, and the NBA betting odds reflect that. The Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers have quickly moved up as possible title contenders in futures NBA betting odds. Kevin Durant has re-established himself as an MVP contender after missing all of last year with a torn Achilles tendon. The league is even talking about expansion – including possibly re-launching the beloved Seattle Supersonics.
That’s a lot of news, and with about 20% of the season behind us, imagine what’s in store as the season really intensifies. Here are four bold predictions for the 2020-21 NBA season.
1. The Milwaukee Bucks will win the NBA championship.
Yeah, I know. We’ve all seen their playoff performances over the last two seasons when, despite being favored and having the reigning MVP on their roster both seasons, they suddenly collapsed and became one-dimensional when faced with more aggressive defenses. Yeah, I know coach Mike Budenholzer’s lack of a regimented offensive system and unwillingness to shorten his rotation the way most teams due in the postseason could still re-emerge in this year’s playoffs.
But there’s a straightforward reason to think the Bucks will be OK this year: defense. When they acquired Jrue Holiday in the offseason, they didn’t just add a former All-Star to take pressure off of Giannis Antetokounmpo. They added arguably the best perimeter defender in the league to a team that already had the best overall defender in the league in Antetokounmpo, who also won the Defensive Player of the Year award last year.
Holiday gives the Bucks a reliable third scorer to go with Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. He has helped improve the team’s three-point shooting – so far, they’re among the best in the league after being a mediocre shooting team overall last season. He also gives the team a point guard capable of creating shots for others when defenses ramp up and try to take the ball out of Antetokounmpo’s hands.
There isn’t a perfect team this season, but the Bucks are the closest team we have to one.
2. The Brooklyn Nets went for it. They shouldn’t have.
The Nets deserve credit for being aggressive. They have two oft-injured stars in Durant and Irving. What goes with that is likely a relatively short window to compete for a championship. They sacrificed some of their depth and complementary players (plus a slew of future draft picks) to add a second former MVP to the team and a third All-Star in James Harden.
It’s not even like the Nets gave up too much – Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen are good players, and the team will miss them. But Brooklyn has reliable guards Bruce Brown and Landry Shamet on their bench. They have been underutilized in Brooklyn due to the Nets’ depth and now suddenly have a chance to make a play for bigger roles.
Allen’s defense will be missed, but the Nets don’t stop anyone anyway.
The problem? Harden. His credentials speak for themselves. But so does the fact that it seems to never work with him and any other star. Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook all didn't work. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins didn't even get a chance. None of those partnerships with anyone saying anything glowing about Harden.
There’s little reason to believe that adding a struggling-with-his-motivation Harden to a team with a distracted Irving bodes well for his partnership. The Nets will be in long-term trouble if this doesn’t work out.
3. The Oklahoma City Thunder will make the playoffs.
The Thunder are weird, there’s no denying that. They’ve tried for two straight years to blow up their roster and fast-track a rebuild. They’ve shipped out star veterans for draft picks and young prospects. They start a player in Darius Bazely and can’t even really define what position he’s supposed to play.
They do everything a rebuilding team is supposed to do to solidify an elite draft position. And yet … Oklahoma City keeps winning. They made the playoffs last season, purged some more veterans to avoid that fate again, and now are 5-6, have several intriguing young talents, and won five of their first 11 games. They play hard, are competitive every night, defend, and have highly regarded veterans on the roster in Al Horford and George Hill. They’ll sneak into the playoffs once more time.
4. Nikola Jokic will lead the NBA in assists.
A center hasn’t led the NBA in assists since Wilt Chamberlain. Jokic is currently averaging 10.5 assists per game, giving him a slight edge over Harden. Expect Harden’s numbers to go down playing next to an elite point guard in Brooklyn. The Nuggets, meanwhile, need Jokic to continue being a playmaker in their offense.
Jokic has built himself into a legitimate MVP candidate, and pulling off a feat like leading the league in assists will only strengthen his case.