A new NBA season begins Tuesday, less than three months after LeBron James helped the Lakers win their franchise’s 17th NBA title. Under the most unusual circumstances to end an NBA season, Los Angeles defeated the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Finals in the NBA Bubble in Orlando.
The 2020-21 campaign will not begin in an isolated bubble but instead will be played in venues across the country. The league has set the first half of its 72-game schedule, which runs through March 4. From there, it will determine how it wants to set the remainder of its season, depending on the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, with the new NBA season a go, let’s predict 10 superlatives for the coming year.
Most Dominant Player: LeBron James
James hopes to lead Los Angeles to consecutive titles for the first time since 2009 and ’10. James, who turns 36 on Dec. 30, averaged 27.6 ppg, 10.8 rebounds and 8.8 assists in the postseason and will be the one to spearhead their championship aspirations. Combining James’s production with Anthony Davis (27.7 ppg in postseason) and new additions—reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol, Dennis Schröder and Wesley Matthews—the Lakers are primed for a potential NBA title repeat, with James once again as the league’s most dominant player.
Most Impactful Player on Team: Luka Dončić
Dončić, 21, made a statement in the bubble. After Mavericks big man Kristaps Porzingis injured his right knee in the opener of the Western Conference quarterfinals series against the LA Clippers, Dončić carried the load. He drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift Dallas over the Clippers in overtime of Game 4, and averaged a whopping 31 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists in the postseason (second best behind Donovan Mitchell).
With Porzingis out until January, it will, again, be up to Dončić to carry the Mavericks. Dončić averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game in the regular season, and even more impressive were his 30.9 points per 36 minutes, third-best in the league behind James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Most Anticipated Team in First Half: Brooklyn Nets
It should be an interesting year for the Nets under first year head coach Steve Nash. Despite spending five seasons as a player development consultant with the Warriors and contributing to NBA championship teams, Nash does not have coaching experience.
The former eight-time All-Star will have his hands full coaching Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, two of the league’s most prominent players. Durant, who’s played mostly as a small forward, is expected to be used at multiple positions under Nash.
“I think coach is going to use me in a variety of ways,” Durant told reporters, “especially as a small-ball 5 and 4, sometimes, and bringing the ball up, too.” Nash wants the team to be versatile and defense will be a priority. With Durant and Irving serving as their two key pieces, along with a supporting cast featuring DeAndre Jordan, Caris LeVert, Jeff Green and defensive guard Bruce Brown, the Nets will compete for the top three spots in the Eastern Conference.
Most Likely to Win MVP: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo
James felt he was robbed of the 2020 MVP award. He received just 16 of 101 first-place votes and finished behind Antetokounmpo. The two stars are once again the two front-runners for the award.
If Antetokounmpo wins the 2020-21 season, he would become the ninth player to earn three or more MVPs, along with James, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Bill Russell. Antetokounmpo, who just signed his five-year, supermax extension with the Bucks, also joined Jordan (1987-88) and Hakeem Olajuwon (1993-94) as the only players to be selected as the NBA MVP and the Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. Before the NBA season paused due to COVID-19, Antetokounmpo led the NBA in double-doubles (52), recorded four triple-doubles and had an absurd 17 games with at least 30 points and 15 rebounds.
Most Anticipated Players to Watch: Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry
Durant and Curry, former NBA champion players, teammates and MVP winners, return the court after recovering from significant injuries.
Durant, 32, missed the entire 2019-20 season after tearing his Achilles with the Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals. He averaged 26 points (eighth best in the league) and 6.4 rebounds in 2018-19, his most recent season.
In his first preseason game, Durant drove to the rim for a ferocious dunk, letting the league know that he was back. He finished that game with 15 points, three rebounds and three assists.
Curry, 32, played in five games last season, averaging 20.8 ppg, before suffering a season-ending, left-hand injury.
In preseason play, Curry was back knocking down threes. The Warriors will need him to do the same in the regular season if they hope to return to the playoffs after their dreadful ’19-’20 season.
Rookie to Watch: LaMelo Ball
Ball is a great playmaker and passer. Before Charlotte drafted him this year, he played professionally in Lithuania and Australia, and won Rookie of the Year honors overseas.
Sophomore to Watch: Zion Williamson
Williamson’s knee injury limited him to 19 games last season, but he played well in limited action, averaging 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds.
If Williamson stays healthy, the Pelicans should compete for one of the final spots in a talented Western Conference.
Emerging Player to Watch: Devin Booker
Booker has increased his production in four of his five NBA seasons and continued to show the league that he belongs in conversation with elite scorers. A 2020 All-Star, he finished the season ranked ninth in scoring while averaging nearly seven assists and four rebounds per game.
Despite not making the playoffs, the Suns went 8-0 in the bubble. With center Deandre Ayton, 10-time All-Star Chris Paul and Jae Crowder, Booker has seasoned players around him to help Phoenix earn what could be the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 12 years.
Most Impactful Offseason Acquisition: Jrue Holiday
Holiday provides the Bucks and Antetokounmpo with needed perimeter scoring, something that should pay off given the other pieces they have in rotation. The Heat manhandled Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference semifinals, sending the Bucks home in a year they finished with the league’s best regular-season record.
Holiday is also a strong defender, earning 2019 All-Defensive Second Team honors. Adding Holiday to a group with Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes and Brook Lopez might be the best recipe to help the Bucks get over the hump.