Early Season Central Division Rankings
This article was an annual tradition hosted by Basketball Insiders penned by veteran Joel Brigham. Then our own Drew Maresca took the reins. This year, there’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Matt John. Fasten your seatbelts.
Now before I begin, I have two things to get off my chest. First, props to both Joel and Drew for writing these up because this is pretty darn difficult to do. When you’re trying to find the right balance between making a truly unique prediction and just spewing out nonsense to get the masses’ attention, it requires a lot of deep thought. Even if you’re trying to come off like Zach Lowe, you may come off like you’re doing your best impression of Skip Bayless.
Second, oh my goodness, this league is so freaking loaded! Most teams are so stockpiled with talent that even with Stephen Curry back and fully healthy, there is a solid chance Golden State doesn’t make the playoffs again. Think about that. Of course, Klay Thompson’s awful Achilles’ tear has something to do with that, but the Warriors still have a solid team around him and it might not matter.
And yes, that’s just the Western Conference being the Western Conference, but the East has a large pool of fantastic teams as well. So much so that Brooklyn could have a good enough offense to put them above the rest of the conference while also having a defense potentially so flawed that they could fall all the way down to the fifth seed at worst. Not because they would be that bad – but because their competition will be very unforgiving.
Anyway, enough dribble – no pun intended – let’s start this baby off! And what better way to start this off than with the award predictions?
1. I’m going to pick the bold-but-not-really choice with Luka Doncic as MVP. Admittingly, picking Luka to win is not really much of a hot take these days. He’s clearly one of the future faces of the league, while the NBA voting committee always loves MVP newcomers. With Dallas way ahead of schedule and Doncic leading the way, I fully anticipate this is going to be the first of multiple MVP winning campaigns for the boy wonder.
2. Jayson Tatum will lead the league in scoring. Over the course of the 2019-20 season, Tatum established himself as arguably the league’s best young scorer. Now, with Gordon Hayward gone and Kemba Walker’s knee being a major question mark, there should be even more scoring opportunities for Tatum. Expect Boston’s offense to take a noticeable step back this season, but Tatum’s scoring numbers should definitely make up for what they lost.
3. As crushed as Giannis Antetokounmpo will be to not three-peat as MVP, he will reign again as Defensive Player of the Year. Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, and Bam Adebayo will fight tooth and nail to get the honor, but Giannis’ build and IQ still make him the NBA’s golden goose on the defensive side.
4. The now financially-prosperous OG Anunoby rewards Toronto’s faith in him by winning the Most Improved Player award. His continued growth as a scorer and vaunted defense plays a huge role in keeping Raptors in the thick of the playoff race. The real shocker though is that the runner-up will be Marvin Bagley III now that he’s fully healthy again.
5. This is going to be the most intense race ever for Comeback Player of the Year with guys like Curry, Kevin Durant and John Wall, among others, gunning for it. Although others will have better performances than him, Wall gets the award. His season will go down as the most impressive seeing how he’s coming off of two consecutive serious injuries and hasn’t played in two years.
6. James Harden won’t make First-Team all-NBA. It sounds ridiculous, but star players do see their All-NBA chances drop when they get traded during the season. Look up Jimmy Butler, 2019. By the way, Harden’s competition is going to be as fierce as ever. Doncic, Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard will all out-shine Harden no matter where he goes.
7. Joining Harden on the All-NBA second team will be Jayson Tatum, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic. The third team will consist of Damian Lillard, Jamal Murray, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
As a bonus, let’s go with Devin Booker, Trae Young, Bam Adebayo, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell among the biggest snubs. Kyrie Irving would be too but I just don’t trust his ability to stay on the floor. Is it too much to ask for a fourth All-NBA team?
8. Caris LeVert wins Sixth Man of the Year. It’s hard to envision LeVert putting up the same numbers he did in the bubble with Irving and Durant in the picture – but if he’s running the second unit’s offense, then he should kill it in that role. I would have put Danilo Gallinari on here, but I just don’t think he’s going to be Atlanta’s sixth man for that long.
9. Gordon Hayward makes it back to the All-Star game. As overpaid as he is, Hayward was the biggest name in free agency to change sides. Hayward’s diminished role in Boston made him underrated as an overqualified fourth option wasn’t good for his production. In Charlotte, he will see the ball a lot more – which should lead to a closer resemblance to Utah Hayward. That is, as long as his continued streak of freak injuries finally stops.
10. For maneuvering Philadelphia back on track, Daryl Morey will win Executive of the Year.
11. Morey’s case will be based on the improved cohesion with the team as a whole. That will be sparked by Ben Simmons, who will lead the league in assists.
Rookie of the Year Predictions
12. This will be the first Rookie of the Year race to not really have a clear frontrunner since 2016. This draft was supposedly filled with less overall superstar talent but more talents that can be vital rotation players on playoff teams.
13. I’m going to go with the surprise lottery pick this year, Patrick Williams. LaMelo Ball will make more highlight reels and has the highest upside, but Williams looks very NBA-ready on a team that will need him right away.
14. Tyrese Haliburton will get the nod over Anthony Edwards for NBA All-Rookie First-Team. That’s not a knock on Edwards. He’s got a good future ahead of him. Haliburton just looks like he has a better feel for the game right now.
15. The James Harden saga is going to drag on and on through this season. Houston has all the leverage in this situation because of what remains of his contract and the Antetokounmpo situation shockingly resolved. He will be traded mid-season but only after we all get a feel of the NBA landscape in 2021.
16. Who wins the Harden sweepstakes? Golden State. They have the assets. They have the contracts. They know Curry isn’t going to play forever. They know the Western Conference will be a free-for-all. They give up the farm for Harden – and they don’t think twice.
17. Oklahoma City will trade Al Horford without sacrificing any assets. Horford will look more like the player in OKC that he was originally paid to be in Philly as the full-time center. They won’t redeem his value as they did with Chris Paul, but they will get rid of him the first chance they get.
18. Boston will use their massive trade exception before the trade deadline. Hayward’s departure and Walker’s balky knee kills their playmaking in spite of bigger strides from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. At the deadline, they’ll trade for a player in the hopes of specifically aiding that department.
19. Atlanta will trade John Collins, a move which they both will come to realize is best for all parties.
20. Cleveland will not trade Kevin Love, even though they also know it would be best for all parties if they did.
21. Rumors about the Bulls will be splitting up that Lauri Markkanen/Wendell Carter frontcourt pairing – but the encouraging progress from both of them along with the chances of another high lottery pick will convince them to give the pair one more chance.
22. Boston, Miami, Denver and the L.A. Lakers will all start the year sluggishly. Not because of anything they did wrong this offseason, but for the mere fact that their previous seasons all ended just two months ago! I expect them not to burst right out the gate though I also expect them to still be among their conference’s elite.
23. For that same reason, teams like Philadelphia, Dallas, Portland and Utah will be off to the best starts because they had an appropriately-sized time off between the end of their last season and the beginning of this one.
24. The Detroit Pistons and the Oklahoma City Thunder will be the worst teams record-wise in their respective conferences.
25. Minnesota and Charlotte will be the teams that most fans will think of when they hear not-good-but-fun.
26. Dallas will get the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference – and for more reasons than just Luka Doncic. Josh Richardson was exactly what the doctor ordered, ideally, Kristaps Porzingis will have a healthier season. With them in play, Dallas will be right at the top.
27. Milwaukee will get the No. 1 seed for the third consecutive year because it’s their postseason efforts in question – not their past regular season results.
28. Brooklyn’s going to struggle at first because while their offense will be top-3 in the league, their defense will be bottom-10 to start. But with the solid assets they have, they’ll trade them for defensive personnel as the season goes on, pushing them to the No. 2 seed.
29. Joining Milwaukee and Brooklyn in the Eastern Conference will be Miami, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia and Indiana in that order.
30. Joining Dallas and the Lakers in the Western Conference will be the Clippers, Denver, Portland, Utah and Golden State in that order.
31. Note that in both conferences, the previous two predictions total out to only seven teams each. I did that because we are in for some very fascinating play-in tournaments. In the East, we’ll get Charlotte, Atlanta and Washington duking it out for No. 8.
In the West, we’ll get Phoenix, New Orleans and Sacramento doing the same. Washington will snag that last spot in the East, while Phoenix gets the last spot in the West.
32. Even though things are going to look so much better than they did last year, both Philadelphia and Utah suffer yet another first-round exit. Although, no matter who they face, both of them will be the one team everyone in their conference will want to avoid in the playoffs for there will be a grueling seven-game series.
33. We are going to get the much-discussed Lakers-Warriors playoff matchup in the first round and it’s going to be one for the ages. Harden and Curry push the defending champs to the brink, but the Lakers prevail in Game 7.
34. Plus, the much-hyped Lakers-Clippers series not only happens in the second round, but the Lakers take it in five.
35. As hot as the Mavericks will look, the Nuggets will overtake them in an intense second round matchup, which will only serve as further proof that this is just another stepping stone for Dallas.
36. The Bucks will do much better than that abomination they put up in the bubble, but that’ll be because the playoff matchups will favor them more by avoiding Miami.
37. And they won’t have to play Miami when they make it back to the conference finals, as Brooklyn will be their opponent. However, the Nets will barely pull away in a tight seven-game series against the Bucks.
38. When L.A. faces off against Brooklyn, the Nets will do better than when those two faced off back in 2002, but the Lakers will repeat as champs as they take the series in five games.
39. Jamal Murray will prove his bubble dominance was not a fluke as he makes his first All-Star team by continuing to shock audiences with his electrifying 25+ point performances.
40. T.J. Warren sadly won’t do the same, but he will continue to prove that he’s one of the best bargain contracts in the NBA.
41. Joel Embiid will be only one of two players in the NBA to average 20+ points and 10+ rebounds. The other will not be Anthony Davis, but it will be a Nikola – Vucevic, that is.
42. Blake Griffin will barely play half the season in Detroit in spite of the numbers he’ll put up while he’s on the floor.
43. Even though Utah will look better than last year, the hot seat buzz will start kicking for Quin Snyder. He’s done a great job with the Jazz, but if Utah fails to get past the first round for the third straight year, it’s hard to see how Snyder avoids the lion’s share of the blame.
44. Drew predicted this the last two years, so I guess it’s going to be a tradition until further notice: Scott Brooks will lose his job. Not at any point during the regular season but after the Wizards get swept by the Bucks in the playoffs. He’s had the excuse of John Wall’s persistent injuries. Not anymore.
45. It’s for that same reason above that Steve Clifford avoids the boot. It’s true that Orlando will miss the playoffs but they’ll attribute that toward Jonathan Isaac blowing out his knee more than anything else. Management will give Clifford the benefit of the doubt. The question is for how long?
46. Atlanta will lead the league in starting lineup changes. Their roster is one big puzzle made up entirely of blue sky that will need the whole season to be put together. The only two players I expect to be mainstays in the starting lineup are Trae Young and Clint Capela, if healthy. That’s it.
47. We’re going to see teams ease up on the three-point shooting. They’ll still come at a high volume, but we saw the Lakers in the bottom-10 in both attempts and percentage from three-point land, and look where they are now. Milwaukee’s lived and died by the three for the last two years and they’ve only achieved regular-season success.
48. We won’t have any new All-Stars this year, barring injury.
49. COVID-19 is definitely going to leave its mark on this season and beyond. Both on the personnel and revenue. It’s happened to the other sports, but there’s no way anyone wanted another bubble.
50. Finally, for the first time possibly ever, San Antonio will intentionally tank their season based on inferior talent versus losing their star player to injury as they did in 1997. You’d have to go back to the days of President Reagan to think of the last time the Spurs were intentionally bad, but that’s the state they are in. If there was an NBA equivalent to 2020, it would be the Spurs waving the white flag after all these years.
And basketball is back! Let me know how I did or what you’re rooting for on Twitter, we’d be happy to hear how wrong these will all be.
Published at Sun, 27 Dec 2020 05:50:13 +0000