Jimmy Casey ‘22
Graphic Courtesy of ESPN
The NBA is (almost) back. After an unusually short two month offseason, teams have begun gearing up for the start of the 2020-2021 campaign. The offseason might’ve been short, but it didn’t lack excitement or surprise. Let’s get into it.
What’s Going On?
So, many people might be wondering: Why is the NBA back after such a short absence? The league usually takes a hiatus starting in the middle of June until the end of October – about four full months. Yet, like everything in 2020, the 2020-2021 NBA season will be a bit different. After the Lakers won the championship on October 11th, the league’s leadership immediately got to work on the plan for the upcoming season.
Normally, there would be no rush. Teams pull in revenue from everywhere – jerseys, food, beer, tickets, parking, and more. Without fans in the arenas, however, much of that money is gone. Teams’ funds are taking a huge hit. Because of this, the NBA had two options. First, they could delay the season opener until January, February, or even March. This would allow players to get some needed rest, and it’d keep the hopes of fans in the stands alive. The second option was to begin the season on December 22nd. This meant an extremely quick turnaround for some of the league’s players, especially those that played in the NBA Finals. They’d have to undergo an uncommon, grueling 72-game season after a tumultuous and difficult 2019-2020 campaign. But, even with all of its downsides, this option ultimately prevailed for one reason and one reason only – money. Estimates revealed that a delay could cause significant earnings losses league wide. This would have implications for both the league’s owners and its players, with salaries taking a substantial hit. With Christmas Day factored in, the earlier start would mean far more television money and the salvaging of a portion of expected revenues, making it an easy choice for the entirety of the league.
Now that the scene is set, it’s time to discuss the outlook for this season. Some teams got better, some worse, and some stayed exactly the same. Either way, there was no shortage of intrigue. In order to lay this out in the best way possible, I’ll start off with analyzing the most significant happenings in the Eastern Conference first, followed by those in the Western Conference.
The Bucks Improved… But Is It Enough? We’ll begin with the Milwaukee Bucks. It’s no secret that the Bucks underachieved for the second straight season, coming up short in the playoffs yet again in the prime of two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s career. Because of this, they were the topic of much debate. With set to hit free agency next offseason, the Bucks had to make a move – and they did. They acquired veteran Jrue Holiday from the Pelicans in exchange for Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and future draft picks. Although it was at a fairly steep price, there is no denying that Holiday is a formidable third star who should make a significant impact for them right away. Milwaukee’s front office also had a deal set up with Sacramento that landed them sharpshooter Bodgan Bogdanović, but the agreement fell through. While Bogdanović isn’t necessarily a star, he was reportedly one of Antetokounmpo’s main targets. Failing to execute a transaction, especially one that their franchise player wanted, is not a good look for Milwaukee. It has many people wondering whether or not Giannis has one foot out the door. Either way, their team has a lot of talent, and as long as they have their MVP, they’ll be contending for a championship this year.
Celtics Lose a Big Name
Boston had a very successful season. Jayson Tatum blossomed into a bonafide superstar, Jaylen Brown drastically improved, and Kemba Walker provided incredible leadership that the Celtics needed. Their squad made a run all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, losing in six games to Miami in a hard-fought series. They also solidified their frontcourt with the signing of center Tristan Thompson, whose rebounding and defensive instincts are a huge benefit to the team. With all of this taken into account, Boston’s prospects for this upcoming season would seemingly be bright. Yet, they sustained a significant loss. Gordon Hayward opted out of his deal with the team, signing with the Charlotte Hornets instead. Hayward’s time in Boston was marked by injury and misfortune, but, when he did play, he offered a different dimension to the Celtics’ offense that other teams had trouble figuring out. Moreover, his worth as a potential trade asset was something Boston’s front office realized and valued. So, while the Celtics will still be one of the top contenders in the conference, Hayward’s absence will most certainly be felt.
The New Look 76ers
The 2019-2020 season was a disaster for Philadelphia. After signing Al Horford to a max contract and bringing in Josh Richardson from Miami, the 76ers had high hopes. But they didn’t take into account the fact that Horford would forget how to make a layup, and seemingly nobody on their team would be able to shoot consistently from beyond 15 feet. This is a bit of a stretch, but it was evident from the outset that Philadelphia’s lack of shooting hindered their success as a team. Superstar Joel Embiid’s stats fell in almost all areas because of the awkward offensive fit of their team. It became clear throughout the season that Sixers would not be able to salvage the situation. They were easily swept out of the playoffs by the Celtics in the first round, putting an end to the nightmarish season. The first and most obvious move was to fire coach Brett Brown. He had a successful run, but he couldn’t survive another playoff failure. After that, they hired Doc Rivers as head coach and Daryl Morey as president of basketball operations. These moves offered hope for Philadelphia’s future, as both of them have experienced much success in the league. Shortly thereafter, Morey got to work. On the night of the NBA Draft, the Sixers traded Horford to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Danny Green, Terrance Ferguson and Vince Poirier. They also sent Josh Richardson to the Dallas Mavericks for Seth Curry, one of the premier three-point shooters in the NBA. In one night, Morey managed to improve upon the 76ers biggest weakness while also getting rid of their worst contract. They also added depth in the frontcourt by signing center Dwight Howard to a veteran minimum deal. These moves will open up the floor for both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and allow the new-look Sixers to start fresh. Oh, also… there are rumors of a James Harden to Philly trade. Will they come into fruition?
Wizards Shake it Up
Washington wasn’t necessarily must-see TV last season. Superstar Bradley Beal’s heroics were just about all they had going for them, as they finished with a record of 25-47, missing the playoffs for the second straight season. With point guard John Wall coming back after missing nearly two full years due to injury, the Wizards didn’t really expect to make waves this offseason. But, to a lot of people’s surprise, they did, executing a blockbuster trade in which they acquired Russell Westbrook from Houston in exchange for Wall. Some have asserted that this is a meaningless move, with no clear “winner” of the trade. I disagree. Westbrook’s playoff woes have been well-noted, but people forget that he is coming off an impressive season that earned him third team all-NBA honors. While John Wall is capable of playing at an all-star level, it’s hard to argue that Westbrook isn’t an upgrade over him. With Wall coming off multiple injuries, Washington was probably going to struggle. But with Westbrook running the show, they will compete every night. The duo of Westbrook and Beal will single handedly win them some games. They also added rookie Deni Avdija, a talented forward from Israel who is poised to make an instant impact. Washington will be interesting; I don’t think they’ll contend, but I do think they’ll be a fringe playoff team that comes to play every night.
Atlanta Builds Around Trae Young
The Hawks had a disappointing 2019-20 season, but their one bright spot was clear: Trae Young. In just his second year, Young averaged a whopping 29.6 points and 9.3 assists per game. However, these huge numbers didn’t translate to wins. This wasn’t necessarily Young’s fault, though. He didn’t have sufficient help. For this reason, Atlanta’s front office was notably very active this offseason. After adding rim protector Clint Capela from the Rockets last season, the Hawks showed some of their other weaknesses. While Young’s offensive skills are elite, his defense is notably abysmal. He was statistically one of the worst defenders in the NBA last season. In order to alleviate this problem, Atlanta added Kris Dunn and Rajon Rondo – two superb perimeter defenders who can take the pressure off of Young. They also signed Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari to the roster. Both of them can provide an immediate impact offensively and will shoulder some of the scoring load. Lastly, they selected 6’9” forward Onyeka Okongwu with their first-round draft pick. Okongwu’s versatility was a big part of the reason why he was so highly regarded coming out of USC, and it’ll most likely help him make a difference on this year’s Hawks squad. These additions paired with their young core of Young,John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, and Kevin Huerter will make Atlanta an intriguing team to watch this season.
Other Notable Moves
The Toronto Raptors lost big men Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, who were both big parts of their success in the past 2 years. They added center Aron Baynes, so it remains to be seen if he can match Ibaka and Gasol’s production. The Miami Heat didn’t make any groundbreaking moves, but they did add guard Avery Bradley and filled Jae Crowder’s departure with rookie Precious Achiuwa. Coming off an impressive run to the Finals, Miami’s squad will be scary yet again. The Brooklyn Nets haven’t made any crazy trades either, but the return of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving catapult them instantly into the list of contending teams. Lastly, many people will have their eyes on the Charlotte Hornets. LaMelo Ball is the league’s most well-known rookie, and he has high expectations. His game paired with the newly acquired Gordon Hayward and Charlotte’s young core will bring some intrigue to the Hornets’ fanbase.
The Lakers Reload Following a convincing championship run, the Lakers were obvious favorites to repeat this upcoming season. As long as LeBron James and Anthony Davis are leading the way, the Lakers will be at the top of most people’s power rankings. Yet, not many people thought they’d actually get better. If anything, the notion was that they’d probably get worse, with key pieces Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Dwight Howard all on expiring contracts. After re-signing Caldwell-Pope, they did in fact lose Rondo and Howard to free agency, but they replaced each with upgrades at their positions. They traded Danny Green to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Dennis Schröder, and signed reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell to a one-year deal. On top of that, they added veterans Wesley Matthews and Marc Gasol, both of whom will likely have an impact. Somehow, some way, the Lakers managed to keep their core intact while drastically improving upon their weaknesses. They are without a doubt the favorites to come away with the Larry O’Brien trophy again in 2021.
The Clipper Curse
After a shocking second-round exit from last season’s playoffs, many wondered what the Clippers would do; even if they’d do anything at all. Somewhat surprisingly, their first move was to fire head coach Doc Rivers. This reverberated around the league and showed that there were more deep-seated issues in the Clippers’ organization than just its players. Since the firing, Los Angeles promoted assistant coach Tyronn Lue to head coach. Lue is a proven coach who won a championship with Cleveland in 2016, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can fix the Clippers’ chemistry troubles. Reports have recently come out about certain players expressing their dismay over the preferential treatment that superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George received. This is yet another example of the locker room tumult that ensued last season. Now, the Clippers are still extremely talented, and although they lost Montrezl Harrell and Landry Shamet, they added productive pieces in Serge Ibaka, Luke Kennard, and Nicolas Batum. It is not a question of whether or not they have enough firepower, because they do. It’s a question of whether or not they can get the personalities on their team to mesh and coincide with one another. If it doesn’t work out this season, Leonard and George could opt out and leave the Clippers behind, which would be disastrous for the franchise. There’s a lot riding on this team.
Houston, We Have a Problem
The Houston Rockets have had an interesting year. At the 2020 trade deadline, they decided to go all-in on the “small-ball” approach. Their starting lineup featured not one player over the height of 6’9”, and their entire game was predicated on layups and threes. To their credit, it worked better than most people believed it would. Houston earned the 4th seed in the playoffs and put their peculiar playstyle to the test. After defeating the underdog Thunder in seven games, it became clear quickly that the Rockets stood no chance against the Lakers. They lost to Los Angeles in five games in a series that wasn’t particularly close. Superstars Russell Westbrook and James Harden both looked lost at times, and Houston went into the offseason with more questions than answers. Consistent with the trend in the NBA, the first order of business for the franchise was to fire coach Mike D’Antoni. His style of coaching had consistently produced good regular season records, but his playoff resumé was not quite as impressive. His time was up. General manager Daryl Morey, one of the most renowned general managers in the league, was also relieved of his duties shortly thereafter. Veteran assistant coach Stephen Silas was promoted to head coach for the first time in his career. For some time, it seemed like these would be the biggest moves of the offseason for Houston. Besides acquiring a few additional pieces to surround Westbrook and Harden, it was expected that they’d run it back with a similar team. Those assumptions were wrong. Both Westbrook and Harden have since requested a trade, with Westbrook having been dealt to Washington in the aforementioned trade for John Wall. The Rockets also signed budding power forward Christian Wood and former all-star Demarcus Cousins in free agency. A starting lineup featuring Wall, Harden, Wood, and Cousins sounds like a formidable threat in the Western Conference, but it might not happen. Harden still hasn’t rescinded his trade request, as he’s reportedly trying to push his way to either Brooklyn or Philadelphia. No substantive offers have been made, but the rumors are relentless. As long as Harden holds out, Houston’s season hangs in the balance. Harden is a generational talent and Houston won’t let go of him easily. It remains to be seen if anyone comes up with a trade package that’s impressive enough.
The Sun(s) Got Brighter in Phoenix
There was arguably not a more impressive team in the NBA restart than the Phoenix Suns. They went undefeated in the bubble, winning all eight of their games. Unfortunately, this still wasn’t enough to make it into the playoffs, as they came up just short. Still, their performance was inspiring. The young duo of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton really shined and proved that they have the chance to become an elite pairing. Phoenix ended their season in a good place, and now they’re even better. In the first big trade of the offseason, the Suns acquired Chris Paul from the Thunder for Ricky Rubio, Ty Jerome, Jalen Lecque, and draft compensation. Paul is a veteran who had a surprising resurgence last season, leading the Thunder to the fifth seed when they weren’t even projected to make the playoffs. By acquiring Paul, Phoenix adds one of the smartest players the NBA has ever seen. Pairing him with Booker creates one of the best backcourts in the league. The trio of Paul, Booker, and Ayton is a legitimate group of stars. They also signed forward Jae Crowder, a tough, gritty wing who was a key part of Miami’s Finals run. Phoenix has improved a team that already looked promising. Although they might not be contenders yet, they’re poised to be an interesting team this season.
The Warriors Are (Kind of) Back
Let’s face it – most people were sick of the Warriors. After five consecutive trips to the Finals and three NBA championships, the Warriors were old news to a lot of NBA fans. For those people, the 2019-2020 season was a nice break. Following a devastating couple of months in which Kevin Durant tore his Achilles and left for Brooklyn, Klay Thompson tore his ACL, and Stephen Curry broke his hand, Golden State went into a mini rebuild for the 2020 season. They finished with the league’s worst record, which effectively landed them the second pick in the NBA draft. Their one-year hiatus seemed perfect – get a high draft pick, develop young players, and allow the Splash Brothers the opportunity to heal and rest. Besides, they’d been going to the Finals every year. They could use the time off. The plan was going smoothly. They drafted rim protector James Wiseman with the second pick, a player who can make an instant impact. They also have Andrew Wiggins, Eric Paschall, and Jordan Poole, all of whom spent last season developing. Then, disaster struck. Just a few weeks before training camp was set to begin, Klay Thompson tore his Achilles. This was a huge blow to a team that everyone viewed as a contender. To try and patch up Klay’s position, the Warriors traded for Kelly Oubre Jr. from the Suns. Oubre Jr. is an athletic, capable wing who can shoot threes and defend. They also signed Kent Bazemore, another wing, to help with depth. So, while Klay’s absence will be greatly felt, Golden State’s front office has done a good job in making up for some of his production. As long as they have Stephen Curry, the Warriors will be electric to watch. Many people have counted them out after hearing of Klay’s injury, which I understand, but I think they’ll be a lot better than people think. If I had to guess, we’ll be seeing a lot of vintage 2015 MVP-like performances from Stephen Curry this season.
Other Notable Moves
The Denver Nuggets lost forward Jerami Grant to the Pistons, which could be a big loss for them. Grant provided stellar defense and three-point shooting in the playoffs and was a valuable piece to the Nuggets success. The Oklahoma City Thunder made multiple moves, stockpiling about a thousand draft picks (no, seriously, I think they have a thousand picks at this point). The Portland Trail Blazers traded for Robert Covington, who’s been an elite wing defender and three- point shooter for the past couple years. They also added hyper athletic forward Derrick Jones Jr. from Miami. Portland badly needed help on the wings so this was a great move. The New Orleans Pelicans will hopefully have a healthy Zion Williamson, which is exciting in its own right. They also traded for center Steven Adams from the Thunder and guard Eric Bledsoe from the Bucks which will help provide depth and toughness to an already respectable team. Lastly, the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted Anthony Edwards with the first pick in the draft. Edwards is an athletic monster who looks like he’ll fit in nicely with D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Eastern Conference Standings
1. Milwaukee Bucks
2. Miami Heat
3. Brooklyn Nets
4. Boston Celtics
5. Philadelphia 76ers
6. Toronto Raptors
7. Washington Wizards
8. Atlanta Hawks
Western Conference Standings
1. LA Lakers
2. LA Clippers
3. Denver Nuggets
4. Dallas Mavericks
5. Golden State Warriors
6. Portland Trail Blazers
7. Utah Jazz
8. Phoenix Suns
MVP: Luka Dončić
Defensive Player of the Year: Ben Simmons
Sixth Man of the Year: Jordan Clarkson
Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball
Most Improved Player: Marvin Bagley III
Coach of the Year: Steve Nash
NBA Champion: LA Lakers