There’s no getting around it, sports are in an interesting spot in our current times. Football for example, both at the college and professional level, have spent their entire seasons navigating the covid infested waters with varying levels of success. The NBA in many ways solidified the pandemic (at least in the U.S.) in people’s minds when Rudy Gobert famously touched every mic at a press conference and shut down the entire NBA. For which I argued he should receive Defensive Player of the Year honors. After returning, the NBA bubble was hailed as a resounding success and example of strong planning and management as the rest of the season was played with no positive tests. Now, only a few months later, we are back with a lot of questions and uncertainty.
There is no bubble this time around. Some arenas are allowing fans and others are not. Expect a lot of changes and scheduling nightmares as the season progresses if positive tests do start cropping up. With all that said take everything I say here with a grain of salt as there is no telling what could happen. The basics are that this will be a shortened 72 game season, the first half of which has been scheduled with the second half to tbd. It will start on December 22 and run until May 16. At that point the play-in tournament for the playoffs will take place, which the bubble proved had potential. Playoffs will then proceed as normal as of this moment, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they did a playoff bubble.
I am basically going to run through every team and do a quick blurb on what I find interesting about them and their potential prospects. I might mention some newcomers on the roster but I won’t run through every addition and loss, there are hundreds of guides for that elsewhere. For fun I’m going to go by conference and division so all the exciting teams aren’t just at the top. Keep in mind everything here is tentative. Injuries always happen and covid could throw an even bigger wrench into things if say a team ends up missing a star for two weeks.
Boston Celtics-The Celtics lost in the conference finals last season and have a lot of talent but they will have to hope their young stars can find another level if they want to compete for a championship. The top of the East got stronger and they will need Tatum, Brown, and Smart at their best if they want to keep hanging with the contenders. Losing Gordon Hayward will be an underrated loss and Kemba will need to stay healthy, but this team should finish in the top half of the East. I’m just not sure they’ll have enough to win it all.
Brooklyn Nets-Last season was almost a wash for the Nets, who added Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant but were without Durant all year and without Kyrie for most of it. In addition, they have solid players like Caris LeVert, Jarret Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Landry Shamet. With Durant and Kyrie healthy this team might have the most talent in the league, but how it coalesces will be the real determining factor in how far they can go.
New York Knicks-The Knicks actually did a non-Knicks thing in that they mostly sat out the offseason and appear to be willing to keep their cap space open while letting some young players develop, most importantly RJ Barrett. Despite new coach Tom Thibodeau, don’t expect much but fans should keep an eye on how some of the young players do.
Philadelphia 76ers-As always one of the more fascinating teams in the league. New president Daryl Morey started making moves right away and this could be the best chance to see if Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid can coexist together. Horford and his contract are gone, while Seth Curry and Danny Green should add some much needed shooting. If they figure it out this team could be a real sleeper contender in the East.
Toronto Raptors-They have some strong players on the roster in Pascal Siakam, Fred VanFleet, and Kyle Lowry, but lost Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. They also will start their season by playing their home games in Tampa Bay rather than Toronto due to covid restrictions. Siakam is one of the most interesting players in the league to me, and this year might show whether he can develop a true offensive game which really hurt him in the playoffs last year. They’re going to be well coached as always by Nick Nurse and it would be foolish to count them out, but I don’t see how they can maintain the level they have been at in years past.
Chicago Bulls-Not a lot I’m excited about here. Zach LaVine is still here, Lauri Markkanen could be good, but without major surprises they’ll be well out of the playoffs.
Cleveland Cavaliers-Similar to the Bulls there just isn’t a lot to get excited about right now. Collin Sexton should keep getting better. Andre Drummond and Kevin Love are also here.
Detroit Pistons-Meh. Their draft pick Killian Hayes is interesting and should see a lot of minutes very quickly. Blake Griffin may or may not be here by the end of the year. Another team looking to the future.
Indiana Pacers-The Pacers basically swapped their coach and nothing else. There were rumors that Victor Oladipo wanted out but those have mostly been squashed. This team, anchored by Oladipo, Sabonis, and Brogdon, should be a solid middle of the pack team but won’t approach truly contending.
Milwaukee Bucks-You could argue that signing Giannis to the supermax and locking him up means they won the entire offseason. Indeed it gives them clarity about how they should be operating for at least the next 5 years, going all out for a title. The team is great but the playoffs showed spots for concern. Personally I think their offense needs a bit more creativity and too often devolves into Giannis slamming himself against 3 defenders. The addition of Jrue Holiday to an already talented team will help them stay at or near the top of the East. They have championship aspirations but got exposed a bit in the bubble. Expect great things but they need to get over that playoff hump.
Atlanta Hawks-This could be a really fun young team that might just slip into the playoffs. Trae Young is electric and the additions of Danillo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic should fit right in. Not to mention John Collins, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, and Clint Capela. They could make a real leap but the concern is on the defensive side. Keep an eye on them.
Charlotte Hornets-They added Gordon Hayward and have some pieces but the real exciting thing about them will be seeing what LaMelo Ball can do. This team isn’t close to competing, but expect some fun highlights on occasion.
Miami Heat-the true runners of the bubble. The Heat have everything going for them this year that they did last year. Bam and Butler are both amazing while young players like Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro could be the next true sharpshooters of the league. I just wonder if the improvements the other top East teams made will prove to be too much. The Heat are great though and certainly consider themselves contenders.
Orlando Magic-With Jonathon Isaac potentially missing the entire year with a knee injury the Magic will likely be average-bad and miss the playoffs. A tough break but there’s not much to see here. Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier can be fun at least.
Washington Wizards-I’m not sure what to make of the Wizards, who made a blockbuster trade in swapping John Wall for Russell Westbrook. Bradley Beal is a genuine superstar, but the rest of the supporting cast won’t be enough for them to climb near the top of the East. A lot depends on how good Russ is and how well he ends up fitting next to Beal.
Contenders: Celtics, Nets, Bucks, Heat
Playoff Guess: The above plus the 76ers, Raptors, Pacers, Hawks OR Wizards
Denver Nuggets-Had a great run in the bubble. If the Jamal Murray leap is real they’ll compete with him and Jokic leading. I think losing Jerami Grant will hurt more than expected but with Jokic, Murray, and Michael Porter Jr they should have a high scoring offense and will win a ton of games. After losing 4-1 in the conference finals last year, we’ll have to see if they can find that final level.
Minnesota Timberwolves-They had the first overall pick in the draft but I think that undersells some real talent on the team in Karl Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. The West is just so stacked they’ll probably be one of a handful of teams competing for the 8 seed and will probably just miss out.
Oklahoma City Thunder-Well they somehow have literally all the draft picks for the next 5 years and are really playing for the future. Their roster isn’t a collection of nobodies, but the team honestly doesn’t care about making the playoffs for the next few years.
Portland Trailblazers-A lot depends on if Lillard, CJ, and Nurkic can all stay healthy. This team could finish 3rd or miss the playoffs entirely but they should be fun as hell at their best. The addition of Covington should help on the wing. I think they slot just below the true contenders though.
Utah Jazz-This is the Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert show, wherever that ends up taking them. If Mitchell can take another step up they might find another level but realistically they’ll be a good team that won’t contend for a title, expect a lot of those in the West.
Golden State Warriors-Before the Klay Thompson injury I’d say they would be back to being contenders. You can’t discount a team with a healthy Steph Curry and Klay on it. But Klay is out for the year and new addition Kelly Oubre doesn’t bring that same level of firepower, though he is a personal favorite of mine. Draymond is still here, Steph is still Steph, and they’ll be a good team, but good might not be enough in the West.
Los Angeles Clippers-Perhaps the most disappointing team of the bubble. They have a lot of internal issues to work out seemingly but still have so much pure talent that they should be a top 3 West team. There is a lot of pressure on the Clippers to perform up to their lofty potential. Kawhi and George will lead the way again and time will tell if they’re locked in. At their best they should provide a stiff challenge to the Lakers.
Los Angeles Lakers-Last year’s champions who also somehow had the best offseason in the league. LeBron and Anthony Davis are obviously the story here. Where they go, the team will go, and they’ve proven already that can be a championship. They’ll be helped by an improved roster including Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrel, Wesley Matthews and Marc Gasol. Honestly assuming everyone stays healthy and plays their best I’m not sure how they don’t walk to another title.
Phoenix Suns-another good young team that should compete for a playoff spot. Adding Chris Paul should take some pressure off the flamethrowing Devin Booker. Defense could be an issue but this team made serious strides in the bubble and if they keep that up they’ll be a lot of fun and compete for a playoff spot.
Sacramento Kings-They won’t realistically make the playoffs but they will try. Fox, Bridges, and the rookie Haliburton could be a lot of fun. There are bright spots on the roster but they find themselves in the middle of the logjam at the bottom of the West.
Dallas Mavericks-They seem like one of those teams that could either step up into the realm of true contenders or fall back down to Earth a bit. Luka Doncic is a genuine MVP candidate, maybe even the front runner, but losing Seth Curry, plus Kristaps Porzingis’s constant health questions raise some concerns for me. They should be a playoff team easily but I’m not convinced they’re ready to join the upper echelon of elite teams.
Houston Rockets-How am I even supposed to guess? This team had an offseason of distilled chaos and that might continue into the season. There is no telling what this team looks like by the end of the year. A lot depends on whether perennial MVP candidate James Harden is on the team and focused. John Wall is in instead of Westbrook. Covington is gone. DeMarcus Cousins and what’s left of his knees are here. There is just no telling what this team will be. Wall and Cousins could get hurt again. Harden could be gone. This feels like the end of an era and could potentially lead to them missing the playoffs.
Memphis Grizzlies-Ja Morant is already amazing and they are young and fun besides (and including) him. That being said they’re mostly just going to be trying to keep everyone developing. If they prove more ready than expected they could all leap and make the playoffs but they’ll most likely end up just outside looking in.
New Orleans Pelicans-The clear favorites. No question, no bias. Unstoppable. Seriously though my Pels will look to use their youth to continue getting better. Zion seems like a superstar in the making and Ingram is already an all-star caliber player but this is going to be a year about building on what they have and new coach Stan Van Gundy drilling some fundamentals into the team. They could end up somewhere around the 6 seed or miss the playoffs entirely, though that might be viewed as a disappointment.
San Antonio Spurs-The insane run this team went on under legendary coach Gregg Popovich finally came to a close last year as they missed the playoffs after 22 straight appearances. Unfortunately that will probably continue in the packed Western Conference but with Aldridge and DeRozan, some talented young players, and typically great coaching they are impossible to count out.
Contenders: Nuggets, Lakers, Clippers
Absolute Clusterfuck of Potential: Trailblazers, Jazz, Warriors, Suns, Kings, Mavericks, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Spurs
My Way Too Early Championship Pick: Lakers over Nets
Storylines to follow besides the covid ones:
How will some of the young teams poised to take the next step fare? What will the bottom of the West look like? What will happen with James Harden and how will that shakeup the league? Can great teams like the Celtics, Bucks, and Nuggets get over the final hurdle? Can any team prove to be a genuine threat to the Lakers?
If there’s anything I learned by doing this its that nearly every team has something to look forward to. Even the teams that don’t stand to accomplish much this year are holding on to massive hordes of picks or cap space. Most teams at least have a fun player or two. Its kind of weird where no one in the league is very obviously screwing up or locked into a terrible spot, depending on if Houston implodes. There’s a small amount of teams that find themselves in the NBA no man’s land, low playoff seed with no obvious avenues to improvement, but even they seem capable of blowing it all up if need be. The East has a pretty obvious hierarchy from top to bottom and the top teams are excellent. Meanwhile the West has obvious front runners but a glut of teams competing for the 4-8 spots. Surprises are sure to happen. Enjoy the season everyone, hope for no covid problems, it should be a fun one.