By Tom Walker | Head of Sport
The NBA is set to tip off on December 22, with the Brooklyn Nets hosting the Golden State Warriors in the season opener. The festive season has always been a significant staple in the NBA calendar, with games infamously running through Christmas Day. But the reconfiguration of the schedule means the season will begin on Christmas week, an idea the NBA have flirted with before, but for reasons far from the current explanation.
As seems to be customary to the start of any season, I am putting my pride on the line and giving five predictions for the upcoming NBA season.
Lakers-Warriors to duel in the Western Conference finals
A Lakers repeat is very much on the cards this year. On paper, they somehow managed to get infinitely better than their Championship winning team. Marc Gasol and Dennis Schroder were two shroud acquisitions and Montrez Harrell will offer them consistent Power Forward/Centre cover for Anthony Davis, whilst simultaneously weakening a direct rival.
Talen Horton-Tucker has looked impressive in pre-season, potentially another ball-handling option alongside Schroder when LeBron James is out the game. It is hard to see any team in the West dethroning the Lakers of their conference title, but I am predicting it will be the Golden State Warriors who will stand between them and another finals appearance.
Of course, the injury to Klay Thompson diminishes their title hopes, but their offseason moves have put them in a position where a Conference Finals appearance is not off the cards. They had a great draft; the James Wiseman pick gives them some much needed size and offensive flair at the Centre position, and Nico Mannion could prove to be a steal if he can provide some solid backup minutes at Point Guard.
A new environment for Andrew Wiggins might be exactly what he needs to fulfil his potential, but if not, his contract may be movable alongside some assets if the Warriors wanted to go for a more established starter or a few experienced role players.
Draymond Green, coach Steve Kerr and of course Steph Curry, will be both pivotal on and off the court if the Warriors are to make a deep playoff run, which based off their previous accomplishments is something I am not willing to bet against.
Wizards to pull it out the hat
Trading long time servant John Wall seemed harsh, but simultaneously smart by the Washington Wizards. Wall was coming off a ruptured Achilles tendon that had seen him miss the last two seasons despite being given the max-extension on his contract.
In return they received a serial All-Star in Russell Westbrook from the Houston Rockets, a man who will divide opinion even long after his retirement.
The one-time MVP was disappointing in the 2019-20 playoffs to say the least. His frustrating shot selection, dismal shooting percentages and sloppy turnovers, were major factors in a dysfunctional Rockets season, and are traits that have seemed to stick with him throughout his career, often overshadowing the brilliance he brings to his teams.
Despite this, I am still high on their upcoming campaign. A backcourt of Westbrook and Bradley Beal could well be the best in the Eastern Conference and will bring some life to an organisation in need of the energy and stardom Westbrook provides.
I can see the Wizards pushing the five-seed in the East, and at a push making it to the second round come playoff time.
Luka Doncic to win the MVP award
In only his second year, the Slovenian received a first All-Star call up, an All-NBA 1st team appearance, and a playoff game winner for the ages. At only 21, Luka Doncic has established himself as one of the best players in the NBA and it is not up for discussion.
If he can avoid injury and slightly improve on his incredible stat line from last year, a feat he is completely capable of doing, there is no doubt Doncic will be in the Most Valuable Player conversation until the very end!
The Sixers to have their best year yet
A team much in need of a great 2020/21 outing is the Philadelphia 76ers. A damp showing against the Boston Celtics in the playoffs was tough, and lost Head Coach Brett Brown his job. His successor, Doc Rivers, is another man with a chip on his shoulder, after his Los Angeles Clippers chocked a 3-1 lead to Denver Nuggets in the 2019/20 playoffs.
The Sixers heavily prioritised shooting in the offseason, acquiring Danny Green and Seth Curry in separate deals, and picking up Isaiah Joe and Tyrese Maxey in the draft. A new coach and staff will be exactly what this team needs after years of not meeting expectations. A James Harden deal has been floating around which, if goes through, will undoubtedly make them a title favourite.
But regardless of a potential Harden deal, I still expect Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid to have big years, leading the Sixers to the two-seed in the East.
Blazers to nab a top 3 seed
Led by Damian Lillard, the Portland Trial Blazers had a brilliant bubble performance. They clawed themselves into the playoffs, a feat that looked very unlikely heading into the restart and took a game off the eventual champions LA Lakers. Their backcourt has always been stellar, and with Anfernee Simons and Gary Trent Jr making leaps in recent time, it gives them even more depth at the guard spots.
Defence was a serious issue for them last year, but the return of Rodney Hood and the signing of Robert Covington will sure them up on that end. The Blazers will be a serious problem this year, so do not be surprised to find them in and around the top of the West come May 2021.