And in the end everything happened very quickly. For a long time it was said that the 2020/21 NBA season would only start in the new year … on January 18th, possibly later. But then the Covid 19 pandemic in the USA worsened, and the owners did not want to miss out on the Christmas business. That is why they chose December 22nd as the start date. OK then! Because the new season should bring a lot of tension: well-known stars in new jerseys and a number of teams who have legitimate hopes for the title. Let’s get it on! Here’s our KICKZ Blog Top Ten Power Ranking for the NBA’s 2021 campaign.
RECORD 2019-20: 48-24
It’s starting to be like a broken record for the Celtics. Every year, the Celtics have numerous draft picks; there are numerous rumors around the draft; and nothing happens – after reports surface about how close a deal was. Another recent trend for Boston of late is big-name veterans refusing their player options and heading elsewhere. Critics then accuse team president Danny Ainge of not being active enough while many others consider the Celtics among the losers of the off-season. But the team has been anything but a loser from a sports standpoint, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the last four years. That was also the case again in 2020. The Celtics were not far from reaching the NBA Finals, but many wonder if they have made strong enough changes to take the final step forward this season. Of course, the unsatisfied Gordon Hayward left for the Hornets, who overpaid for him and sent in return to Boston a trade exception, which in essence is a blank check to sign a player by trade and give him 27.9 million dollars. Otherwise there were no big moves made. Boston drafted shooter Aaron Nesmith (14th pick) and backup guard Payton Pritchard and picked up Jeff Teague and ex-Cavalier center Tristan Thompson in free agency. In addition, the Celtics extended their deal with Jayson Tatum, who will earn 195 million dollars over five years. Ainge is confident that Tatum will develop into a top five player in the NBA and lead Boston to their 18th banner alongside Jaylen Brown. These two are the foundation of the club and have been signed long term in order to be built around. This might not be a bad bet. The past two years have shown the wings are great at both ends and still young enough to improve. Both took big steps in 2019-20 but are still not at their best.
The loss of Hayward meanwhile may not end up being a major drama, especially if the trade exception secures a real solid performer. There is still a playmaking vacuum which Tatum could fill as the next area in his improvement. It could end up that the new Celtics roster actually has a more logical breakdown of roles with Kemba Walker, Brown and Tatum as designated scorers, Marcus Smart as the “stretch six” and Thompson as a defender who works around the basket on offense and is one of the best rebounders on the team in years. Brad Stevens will need to find depth on the roster and try out other unproven options. Romeo Langford had an injury-riddled rookie season and will also miss the start of training camp. But he will probably get more playing time than last season when he returns. Draft picks Pritchard and Nesmith provide much-needed shooting, but both will likely need time to get used to the league. And they will need to perform if Stevens doesn’t want to play Brown, Smart and Tatum 40 minutes per game each because of a lack of other options. In the short term, that could hurt Boston’s strong defense from last season, but it will provide for some relief in the long haul. Thompson’s arrival means an upgrade at center as long as he can return to his Cavs level from before 2018. It’s unclear if Thompson or Daniel Theis will start, but both fit well into Stevens’ switch-heavy system while third-year man Robert Williams showed signs in the playoffs against Toronto and is the team’s most athletic player besides Brown. Teague will shoot more than departed Brad Wanamaker, otherwise there isn’t much difference at the one – as long as Walker’s health plays along. The roster has the potential to be deeper even though one of the top players is gone – which was also understandable at the price tag. But it remains to be seen if it will actually hurt the Celtics in reality – or maybe even help them.
Boston have a number of good scoring options, are versatile and the core of the team is still young. They are top five in defense and offense. Without Hayward, the team has a sensible hierarchy with Tatum on the brink of superstardom.
If Walker’s knee does not recover the point guard position is a problem. A lack of depth means Stevens will have to rely on young players, which will harm the defense. The core of the offense is still too dependent on (tough) jumpshots.
With a bit of luck, Boston could once again reach the Conference Finals this season. Hayward is not needed for that. But the team did not get clearly better. There are still too many questions after the top five or six players.
RECORD 2019-20: 44-29
Dealing with timelines is part of every front office and that doesn’t mean just reaching a peak but also making sure players’ salaries align effectively along with their ages. Of course a certain level of luck is involved in the equation as well – though that often can come entirely different than planned. The Miami Heat will not admit they were surprised by their run to the NBA Finals in the bubble. That isn’t part of their famed culture of expecting wins. And no one in Miami will be satisfied as the Lakers won the last game of the season. But the Heat reached their peak at exactly the right time and improved themselves more from the “normal” season more than any other team in the bubble. Still, their strong showing actually made their off-season a little more complicated since Miami had – and still have – other major plans. The Heat were among a handful of teams who couldn’t afford any mis-steps in terms of a possible free agency for Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021. That meant no long-term contracts. And that meant losing Jae Crowder and Derrick Jones Jr. The Heat really only kept Goran Dragic and Meyers Leonard, who will both earn a lot of money this season but have team options for the summer of 2021 – something they have in common with Avery Bradley and Andre Iguodala. Miami could have completely changed their team in one year. “Could have” because Bam Adebayo was given a five-year extension for 163 million dollars, which could become even more lucrative via the “Rose Rule”. Miami can still come up with enough room for a max deal in 2021 but it will be a lot more complicated. In the meantime, there is the 2020-21 season and the Heat have some questions.
Did Miami get better? And how good were they really before that? In terms of the question if the Heat got better, Dragic was the top priority and he returned, looking to re-capture some of the magic from the bubble. It’s possible that he will need his minutes to be managed in the regular season. Jones’ departure could hurt Erik Spoelstra’s beloved zone defense and Miami hope Bradley can fill the hole. A major loss will be Crowder, who never shied away from taking open threes – something that cannot be said about his successor Maurice Harkless. The Heat will probably play a lot with two bigs in the regular season with Adebayo at the four. Bam moved up to the five in the playoffs but it remains to be seen if Harkless can play with him as well as Crowder did. Also new to the team is Precious Achiuwa, who was selected with the 20th pick in the draft. Spoelstra will give the super-athlete minutes, even though the three most important big men from last season – Adebayo, Leonard and Kelly Olynyk – are still there. All in all, the Heat have an intact team which will grow together. The 20-year-old Tyler Herro will probably take on more playmaking responsibility and the still young Adebayo – 23 years old – doesn’t seem like the type of player who will relax after getting a big contract. Bam showed against the Celtics that he can shoulder more of an offensive load and he continues to work on his shot. Last but not least, Jimmy Butler proved during the playoffs that the 31-year-old can be an alpha on his own team. The Heat are very similar to their star: variable, motivated at both ends of the court and tireless. Butler and the Heat organization are the perfect fit. Still it’s anything but certain that Miami will repeat what it did in 2020. There are many teams who on paper look like they have more talent and the conditions are different than they were in the bubble. Miami is not the top favorite in the East but the Heat have shown that they have it in them.
High collective IQ and play well with each other with good spacing (second-best three-point shooting percentage in 2019-20!) and the best free throw percentage. Spoelstra is a genius and the defense also works with below-average defenders. Two real stars in Bam and Butler.
Dragic isn’t getting any younger and who else can provide the playmaking? Point guards are missing. Robinson, Herro and Nunn are only one-way players as of now. There is no ideal solution for the lineup with Adebayo at center.
The Heat are once again competing for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. But something still must happen if they want to get back to the Finals or even win the title. The Heat really did not get any better.
RECORD 2019-20: 43-30
What was the saying back then in Philadelphia? “Trust the process!” It’s been four years since general manager Sam Hinkie left the Sixers and ended the “process”. And this off-season saw Hinkie’s former boss Daryl Morey arrive in the City of Brotherly Love as the president of basketball operations. Morey was let go after 13 years with the Houston Rockets and initially wanted to take a timeout. But the 76ers came calling and he wants to take the team to the Finals – at least. “The opportunity to work again with Doc Rivers, Elton Brand and a stacked roster that is ready to win made this a can’t miss opportunity,” Morey said. After years of talk that Sixers stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid cannot play together, the new sheriff in town Morey would hear none of it and refused to trade away either. And he started to rebuild the roster around them. Morey quickly identified the 76ers’ long-time weakness and worked on improving their three-point shooting. In 2019-20, they ranked 22nd in the league from downtown which didn’t allow for enough space for Simmons’ drives or Embiid’s postups. After the disastrous teaming of Embiid and Al Horford at center and power forward, respectively, Morey found a taker for Horford and sent him (along with a 2025 first round pick because he is averaging 27.0 million dollars until 2023) to Oklahoma City for three-and-D players Danny Green and Terrance Ferguson. Morey kept going and sent Josh Richardson and his hefty price tag to Dallas for Seth Curry and his 44.3 percent career three-point shooting percentage (second best of all time behind Steve Kerr’s 45.4 percent).
After saving money and bringing in shooting, the roster looks more of a fit. Shake Milton and Green will start at guard with Milton able to run the pick-and-roll. Tobias Harris and Simmons are set at the wing positions. Harris struggled last season in an unusual role and without much space. Of course he is overpaid at 34.4 million dollars but he has potential for 20 points and eight rebounds. One advantage will be having Doc Rivers as coach again after Rivers coached him to 20.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and a three-point shooting percentage of 43.4 percent with the Clippers in 2018-19. Simmons can only dream of the latter number, but he also doesn’t need to shot that well. The 24-year-old made the All-NBA Third Team as well as the All-Defensive First Team last season. He played as a point guard but that role will likely change under Rivers – and it must because his effectiveness is limited without an outside shot. The new coaching staff will certainly find him ways to excel away from the ball. Embiid finishes the starting five and is also the team’s most important player. While Rivers must tailor a new tactical concept around Simmons, the All-Star center needs to worry about what goes on between the ears. Embiid has not lived up to expectations since finally debuting in 2016 after being drafted in 2014, mainly because he missed two seasons with injuries. Sure, he’s averaging 23.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.8 blocks in four seasons, but he doesn’t always play like that. The main reasons include injuries, a motor that doesn’t always run and a lack of hunger in the off-season. If he were to go into a season at 100 percent fitness he would be a legitimate MVP candidate. But will that ever be the case? The rest of the roster includes the ever-improving defensive monster Matisse Thybulle at shooting guard, small forward Furkan Korkmaz, power forward Mike Scott and backup centers Dwight Howard and Tony Bradley.
The Sixers finally have enough shooters on the roster to give Simmons and Embiid the space they need. The star duo is among the best in the league and with Doc Rivers they have a coach on the sidelines who is known for getting the best out of players.
Can Embiid finish a season without injuries? Will Simmons ever be willing to take three-pointers? The team needs another playmaker from the bench and Green may be getting old. If things don’t work from the start will there be rumblings? Cue: James Harden.
The Sixers could be awaken from their Cinderella sleep through Doc Rivers and finally reach the Conference Finals for the first time since 2001. The talent is there. Rivers must provide the necessary tactics, but can he make Embiid into a real alpha?
RECORD 2019-20: 43-32
It was a shot for the ages: Luka Doncic, the Clippers, Porzingis injured, overtime, 43 points – the last three as a buzzer-beater. “Bang, bang!” Was it a victory for the ages – the 133-132 win against L.A. in Game 4 of the first round of the 2020 playoffs? No. It was much more. The Dallas Mavericks’ rebuild in the post-Nowitzki era was officially over. Luka Doncic was now a star, and starting then and there, the goals had changed. The 2020 off-season showed that. Of course, the dreams of signing Giannis Antetokounmpo dominated the headlines – though that kind of coup is and was unlikely. President of basketball operation Donnie Nelson and his boss Mark Cuban knew that too. The premise was to not ruin their own future financially. At the same time, the roster needed to be improved to make the next step towards … gulp … the title. Just like last season, Dallas saw that the wing positions was the team’s weak spot. They just didn’t have the physical defender to guard the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler. The Mavs bosses made that their top priority and did a great job solving it. Josh Green and Tyler Bey are two three-and-D guys picked up in the draft. And then shooter Seth Curry was traded for the better defending Josh Richardson while Wesley Iwundu and James Johnson arrived from Orlando and Minnesota, respectively. As far as coach Rick Carlisle’s starting lineup, Doncic starts at point guard. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo finished more of his team’s possessions with the ball than Doncic. But “Luka Magic” didn’t just keep the ball in his hands. He racked up the best offensive rating of all time with his pick-and-roll play celebrated like no other. Doncic’s only weakness until now is his outside shot. He hit only 28.0 percent on catch-and-shoot situations and 31.6 percent off the dribble.
Alongside the MVP candidate in the starting five will be Richardson and Tim Hardaway Jr. Both will be called upon to defend and hit open jumpers created for them by Luka. Down low, Kristaps Porzingis will be much awaited when he returns in January from his meniscus tear. The Mavs hope the Latvian ace can finally put his string of injuries behind him. Since 2016-17, his second season, Porzingis has not played more than 66 games in a season. The 25-year-old is supposed to be the second superstar alongside Doncic, picking up 20 points, nearly 10 rebounds and 2 blocks a game. But it took him a while to get used to his role with Doncic, taking more three-pointers than ever before. It wasn’t until Dwight Powell tore his Achilles tendon and Porzingis moved to center that he seemed to feel comfortable in the offense. Porzingis doesn’t need to dominate the zone with post-ups but a little variation in his shot selection would help. It’s unclear who will start alongside Porzingis. Powell’s game is limited – though the Doncic-Powell pick-and-roll combo was good for the third-best offensive rating of any duo in 2019-20. Maxi Kleber probably fits better with the Unicorn as he can play both low post positions, protects the rim and can defend the dribbler in the pick-and-roll. Kleber’s three-pointer is solid and his pick-and-pop is a real weapon – also because he can finish at the rim. Carlisle has a number of role players to come off the bench. Jalen Brunson is an ultra clever point guard whose development has meant the end of the J.J. Barea era. Trey Burke is a strong scorer off the bench while Iwundu and Green provide defense and threes and Dorian Finney-Smith and Johnson offer up the dirty work – especially Johnson, whose nickname is “Bloodsport”. And the reserve centers are the 2.21 meter giant Boban Marjanovic as well as Willie Cauley-Stein.
The Dallas Mavericks have an absolute MVP candidate, who leads through his thought-out, efficient and versatile offense. The team is deep and can play extremely big or small. And the wing positions have also been adequately filled.
Is Porzingis really the second star of a conference finalist if he only takes threes? The defense will be better but it ranked 18th in 2019-20 and the Mavs also didn’t rebound that well. Does the team rely too much on Doncic?
The Mavs are back! For the first time since 2011, the franchise has a team that could reach the Conference Finals. Doncic could be more efficient since the wings are improved. The rebuild is complete.
RECORD 2019-20: 44-28
What if? What could have been if Mike Conley’s three-pointer in Game 7 of the first round series against Denver Nuggets had gone in at the buzzer? The Jazz would have won 81-80 and would not have given up a 3-1 lead. They would have had a chance against the Clippers to reach the Conference Finals. Sigh … The Jazz were close, so it’s not a surprise that general manager Dennis Lindsey decided his motto for the off-season should be “Run it back!” Franchise star Donovan Mitchell received a max deal extension (five years, 195 million dollars) and Jordan Clarkson – who arrived in 2019-20 in a trade from Cleveland – also got a new contract (four years, 52 million dollars). The only free agent addition was a familiar face: Derrick Favors (three years, 27 million dollars). It’s clear that Coach Quin Snyder trusts his rotation. Conley will be entering his second season in Salt Lake City and everyone involved hopes his streaky debut season will become a faint memory. It took Conley a while to really take his spot in the Jazz team in 2019-20 as his role was not clear and he was slowed by injuries. How well Conley and Mitchell play together will go a long way in determining the Jazz’s success in 2020-21. Mitchell is the star of the team and he reached a supernova level in his unbelievable battles with Jamal Murray in the playoffs: 36.3 points and 51.6 percent on threes. What will it be like this season? And if Mitchell has the ball more, there must be a delicate balance found with Conley. Joe Ingles will probably start at small forward and the Australian is one of the best glue guys in the league. As a secondary playmaker with a good three-point shot and good understanding of the game, Ingles gives the Jazz the stability it often needs.
The most important “addition” in the roster will be power forward Bojan Bogdanovic. The Croatian international injured his shooting wrist last season and missed the bubble in Orlando. And the Jazz missed his 20.2 points and 41 percent three-point shooting. The fact is with him in the lineup the Jazz have two 20-point scorers and his shot creates a lot of room for the guards’ pick-and-roll with center Rudy Gobert, the latter who needs that to finish at the rim. The Frenchman still didn’t develop a shot as he lives off offensive rebounds and lobs. But the “Stifle Tower” remains a nightmare for any opponent driving to the basket. The annual finalist for Defender of the Year is the anchor of the Jazz’s drop defense. Snyder does everything he can so that his best defender doesn’t have to leave the heart of the defense. Gobert’s backup will be Favors, who knows the system and will be perfectly adequate with the third string center being rookie Udoka Azubuike. Back to the the guards. Clarkson will be the first off the bench and the 28-year-old got a boost with the absence of Bogdanovic, putting up career highs in shooting. Georges Niang is a wing player who can hit three-pointers though O’Neale is the only who deserves the status of a three-and-D guy. Otherwise the roster is full of projects. Miye Oni is also a three-and-D guy but still needs experience, as does Rayjon Tucker and Nigel Williams-Goss will serve as backup point guard. And there is one more new addition – off the court. Ryan Smith is the new owner of the Jazz. The 42-year-old internet billionaire paid 1.66 billion dollars for the team. Smith is a life-long fan of the franchise and dreamed of one day playing for the Jazz. It’s expected that he will do everything he can to make the franchise into a title contender – like Mark Cuban did in Dallas – including going over the luxury tax threshold if necessary.
The Jazz are dominated by Rudy Gobert’s defense. Offensively, they hit their threes better than any other team and thrive on defensive rebounding. The team is well-attuned and has excellent balance.
Gobert remains offensively limited. He cannot play in every playoffs series because of that. Will Conley be okay if Bogdanovic also gets shots? The defense took a clear step back in 2019-20, can Snyder buck that trend?
The Jazz are once again a darkhorse favorite in the West. If everyone stays healthy, Coach Snyder has some options on offense, topped by superstar Mitchell. Utah could be trusted to make the same step that the Nuggets did in 2020.
RECORD 2019-20: 35-37
This off-season in Brooklyn was pretty quiet compared to the whirlwind of last year when the franchise added two superstars in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. It was clear from the beginning that the 2019-20 campaign would be a transitional year due to Durant’s rehab from his torn Achilles tendon. What wasn’t expected was Irving spending more time with the physios than on the court. Combine that with the absences of DeAndre Jordan, Spence Dinwiddie, Taurean Prince and Wilson Chandler and Brooklyn played with a slightly better G-League team in the Florida bubble and got swept by Toronto in the playoffs. The shortened off-season could be a major disadvantage for the Nets. What the team needs most is the chance to come together. The offense must be built around stars who either didn’t play at all last season or not very much. How fit are they and what about rookie coach Steve Nash? One could reason that this season is also a transitional one. Still, Brooklyn must reach the playoffs and preferably not get swept in the first round again. But It will take time for Durant and co. to get accustomed to Nash. The big push for the title probably won’t come until 2021-22. Just ask the L.A. Clippers about having two alphas who haven’t played together yet. There are other questions as well. At center for example, Jarrett Allen is clearly the better player than DeAndre Jordan at this time. But Jordan is in Brooklyn because he gets along well with Durant and Irving. How much time will he take away from Allen? Durant and Irving definitely have something to prove. The latter wants to show he can do it without LeBron James while the former Warrior is hungry to exhibit he doesn’t need one of the best teams of all time. Both stars have the reputation of not always being great for harmony in the locker room. And then there is the evil media, which always gives Durant a hard time. Irving is also known to ruffle his teammates’ feathers.
And will the teammates be happy with fewer touches than maybe needed to improve? A good move by the Nets though was the trade with the Clippers to get guard Landry Shamet for the 19th pick in the draft. Shamet is happy with or without the ball but still has a good shot – making him a perfect fit for the Nets roster. The same goes for Joe Harris, the three-point god who was kept for four years and 75 million dollars. Shamet and Harris will be important as Brooklyn shot just 34.3 percent from downtown, ranking 25th in the league with the fifth-most attempts (42.3 per game). A major unknown is coaching rookie Steve Nash. The point guard legend has put experience around him on his coaching staff with Mike D’Antoni turning down looking for a head coaching spot to coach for his former playmaker. Nash will be a player’s coach considering that Irving and Durant were believed to be involved in the firing of Kenny Aktinson. And it might not be easy coaching Irving as he admitted in an interview, saying: “We don’t need someone to come in with their coaching philosophy, change everything we’re doing, change up the wheel, and we’re going to start running on the first day of practice. No!” He added: “I don’t really see us having a head coach. You know what I mean? KD could be a head coach. I could be a head coach.” Nash would be well-served to have a short, explanatory meeting about who the coach is and who isn’t. A lot is expected from the Nets in 2020-21. But the potential is also there to be one of the biggest disappointments in the league. But if the stars stay healthy, the locker room remains non-toxic and Nash proves to be as good a coach as he was a player, then Brooklyn could have a good season.
Star power, coach with bombastic basketball IQ, important free agent signings, roster intelligently improved. The sky’s the limit for the team. If Durant and Irving stay healthy, they could make the Finals.
Long injury breaks for the stars, no chance to develop on the court. Durant must kick off the rust and Irving needs to play consecutive games. Also always potential for drama or trouble brewing at press conferences.
Quite a few things must build up in Brooklyn. The new coach and long-time absences will make the start difficult. In the end, it should be a good but not a crowing year. But the writing is on the wall to go for the title in 2022.
RECORD 2019-20: 56-17
Disappointing. That’s the only word needed to describe the Bucks’ last season. Giannis Antetokounmpo got injured in the second playoff round exit against the Miami Heat, but the 4-1 series loss only exposed Milwaukee’s problems. Coach Mike Budenholzer was criticized for not having a Plan B to his predictable offense as well as using load management in the post-season. The offense decayed into its individual parts and Budenholzer never adjusted his defensive system. The 2020 off-season featured the motto: everything new for the future. It wasn’t just about reacting to the failure in the bubble but also locking up the future. Antetokounmpo’s contract ends next summer and numerous teams are lurking if no extension is signed. To avoid this, general manager Jon Horst went into the off-season more aggressive than any other NBA personnel boss. He needed to show the two-time MVP that the franchise will do everything it can to win the title. In are Jrue Holiday, D.J. Augustin, Bryan Forbes, Torrey Craig and Bobby Portis – five rotation players with Holiday even having All-Star caliber. Bogdan Bogdanovic was also supposed to be brought in but the sign-and-trade for the Serbian fell apart. Regardless, the Bucks will be better than in 2019-20. The acquisitions were not just for show but also made quite a lot of sense. Augustin (41.6 3pt% on catch-and-shoots) and Forbes (39.5%) will be welcome recipients of Antetokounmpo’s passes while Holiday (36.4%), Portis (35.6%) and Craig (32.1%) can also shoot. Holiday also makes up for the loss of Eric Bledsoe as he can defend both guard spots and small forward while also being a capable dribbler in the pick-and-roll and someone who can create for others – giving the Bucks a veritable “Big Three” along with Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.
The latter will also be happy about Holiday’s arrival as Middleton was often left alone offensively when Antetokounmpo went to the bench, especially in the playoffs. That will change with Holiday at his side. Middleton is a plus-defender who can score on his own but works better with a ball-handler. Who will start on the wing alongside Middleton and Holiday? Augustin, Forbes, Donte DiVincenzo or even Pat Connaughton could get the call. The two big spots will be filled by Antetokounmpo as power point forward and Brook Lopez as stretch-five. So very little will change in the Bucks’ offensive strategy as Lopez playing outside opens the lane for Antetokounmpo. Defensively, Lopez will need to stay under the basket. The 2.13 meter big man drops to the zone in pick-and-rolls to prevent shots at the rim. This principle made the Bucks the best defense in the league in 2019-20 – just like in 2018-19. Antetokounmpo’s presence at the rim had a lot to do with it as well. His athleticism, his feeling for the right moment to help and his ability to defend seemingly every position earned him the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2020. And he and Lopez combined as the league’s best big man duo in terms of defensive rating. But there is that one issue … Antetokounmpo’s shot. He still shoots threes below average and while that doesn’t pose a problem in the regular season, the Heat showed once again in the playoffs how the Bucks crumble when a wall is placed in front of the Greek star. Neither Antetokounmpo nor his outside shooters were able to punish this tactic, but that should change in 2020-21. Otherwise he has everything needed to be an all-time great. Is Mike Budenholzer one of the best coaches of all time? No. But he doesn’t have to be. Coach Bud’s system works but he cannot just say “Let’s just keep going.” Holiday’s addition will be a big help and the Finals are an absolute minimum goal for the season.
Really strong and complementary Big Three around the reigning MVP. The additions Craig (defense) and Portis (stretch big) are competent. The Bucks will once again dominate defensively and on the glass. And Milwaukee will again play up-tempo.
Defensively the Bucks took a step back in terms of personnel – Lopez and Antetokounmpo must compensate for that. There is no real backup center on the roster. Has Budenholzer found a new way tactically for the playoffs?
The Bucks are one of the winners of the off-season and once again one of the favorites for the title. The roster at the top is better than last year but Coach Bud will have to hide the new role players defensively.
RECORD 2019-20: 46-27
Even more than the Lakers winning the title, people will remember the bubble performance of the Nuggets. They were dead already – down 3-1, twice. There was the great comeback against Utah and the heart-breaking miss by Mike Conley to send Denver into the second round. Denver once again showed an unbelievable will to win and after the epic collapse of the Clippers in Game 7, the men from the Mile High City reached the Conference Finals. The Nuggets gave a solid fight and were a game-winner by Anthony Davis away from really making the series interesting. But in the end, LeBron James and the Lakers were just a number too big. The Nuggets yielded respect from around the world and provided an endless array of stories. There is the morale of twice coming back from 3-1 deficits. There is Nikola Jokic, who has perfected his game and is in the process of revolutionizing the center position. There is Jamal Murray, who gave his all and came up with some impossible Jordanesque finishes around the rim. After a streaky regular season, Murray averaged 26.5 points and 6.6 assists in the post-season with shooting splits of 51-45-90. Michael Porter Jr also hinted offensively why he was considered a certain top three pick before his back injury. All of this under Coach Mike Malone, who was able to make the team more than a sum of its individual parts. All agreed that the Nuggets were in a great situation. They were only missing small pieces to make the final step.
Then came free agency and the sobering news that Jerami Grant signed a four-year deal for 80 million dollars with Detroit to take on a bigger role. His departure is a major hit. The franchise was able to replace him with JaMychal Green but it’s a downgrade. The Nuggets also were not able to bring in a third star. Porter Jr could become that but his defense has been poor. Jrue Holiday was a possible candidate to help Denver but he ended up in Milwaukee. That made it all the more important to at least keep Paul Millsap. Half of the league was said to be after the veteran, especially the Celtics. But the 35-year-old extended for one year and 10 million dollars. Just like Grant, Mason Plumlee went to Detroit and Jokic’s backups will include Isaiah Hartenstein, who signed for two seasons and Zeke Nnaji, this year’s 22nd pick in the draft. Two picks later, Denver selected R.J. Hampton, which is a typical Nuggets pick. He could be a complete bust or he could be the steal of the draft. The combo guard spent last season in New Zealand and showed off his explosiveness. To add some creative support at the one, the Nuggets signed Facundo Campazzo from Real Madrid. The Argentinian was the EuroLeague’s best playmaker and will get valuable minutes behind and next to Murray. If Campazzo and Hampton get more time on the court, that will likely quicken the Nuggets’ pace. Denver last season was the second slowest team in the league though they had the fifth-best offensive rating of 113.1 points per 100 possessions. The most important Nugget remains Nikola Jokic, who averaged 20 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists. His game is one big mis-match for many teams, and he is an absolute anchor for Denver. One building block for the future is Bol Bol. The 21-year-old ended up getting a full contract with the Nuggets and displayed his potential as a stretch big, hitting 44.4 percent on threes with some impressive passing skills for a 2.20 meter big man. In order to storm to the Finals, Jokic and co. will need to repeat their fairy-tale performances from the bubble. If not, 2020-21 will be a transition year until they bring in pieces needed. But Denver will definitely be a top team.
An super-dominant point center in Jokic. Murray on the way to being a top star. Add to that a competent coach and togetherness in the locker room. And the whole league knows the Nuggets can always come back.
Millsap is not getting younger and Grant’s departure hurts. Free agency was unassuming. Experience and defense is missing from the bench. Murray must confirm his bubble performance. The next step is long and expectations high.
The Nuggets will once again be a lot of fun in 2020-21 and head into the playoffs with home court advantage. But it will not be enough for the big goal – unless Porter Jr, Bol and Hampton all explode at the same time, unlikely.
RECORD 2019-20: 49-23
What now? The heads of the L.A. Clippers have likely posed this question more than once since the team’s embarrassing exit against the Denver Nuggets in the bubble in Orlando. The Clippers led 3-1 but ended up losing the series. The team had the second-best offense and fifth-best defense in the regular season but only Ivica Zubac played more than 65 of the 72 games. The playoffs exposed cracks in the team foundation but also showed they can play the best basketball in the league. Yeah, and now what? Owner Steve Ballmer, president Lawrence Frank and advisor Jerry West came to the conclusion that the team needs a new voice. Assistant and championship-winning coach Tyronn Lue replaced Doc Rivers. Lue led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the 2016 crown after taking over from successor David Blatt during the season. He knows the situation but this time has a training camp to bring his team in order. The goal though remains the game: the championship. The Clippers will once again be led by the star duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George – and hopefully for more than 37 games. That was the number of games the two All-Stars played together in 2019-20. Leonard is the clear alpha of the Clips. He can dominate in any area on offense or defense. One serious question is Leonard’s leadership quality. When he left San Antonio, Gregg Popovich attested that he was a great player but not a leader. And his arrival – and apparent appeasement of his wishes – did not set well with all his Clippers teammates. TheAthletic.com reported that Pat Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell were not exactly happy that Leonard could decide which games he would sit and when he would be subbed out or not. A team that doesn’t stand together will fall apart if the opposing wind is strong enough – just like the Clippers against the Nuggets.
The Clippers will hope that Leonard learned his lessons. Tyronn Lue experienced all of it first hand in 2019-20. This closeness was likely a big reason for his promotion … and also that dealt with big stars in Cleveland. Paul George is also a star despite all his issues. Sure, “Pandemic P” scored fewer than 20 points in seven of his 13 playoff games in 2020 and struggled from the outside, but the man can play basketball and also showed that in the post-season. Together with Leonard, he forms one of the best duos in the NBA. Patrick Beverly meanwhile is the point guard of the team without being a playmaker. Sure, he passes the ball and gets his teammates involved but he is not a classical floor general. “Mr. 94 Feet” is the aggression leader of the team, a smaller version of Marcus Smart who disrupts the opponent’s game and hits from long range. Luke Kennard will start at his side. The ex-Piston replaces Landry Shamet, who was not good enough defensively. Kennard is taller and heavier than his predecessor and able to create for himself and others out of the pick-and-roll. At center, Lue will find out in camp what the team’s second prominent acquisition still has in the tank and if Serge Ibaka can move ahead of Ivica Zubac. The latter developed into a very good zone defender and rebounder though he can’t extend his shot further than the mid-range. The 31-year-old Ibaka replaces Montrezl Harrell, who moved to the other home locker room in the Staples Center as a free agent. Marcus Morris will help with scoring from the bench as he poured in 11.8 points with a 47.5 percent clip from the outside during the playoffs. The Clippers can expect a strong season from him and some relief from his two star teammates – even if they don’t want that.
The Clippers are a very flexible team which can switch on everything defensively and is anchored by two rim protectors. Everyone is healthy for the start of the season this time and the team will be extra motivated after the disaster from Orlando.
An elite playmaker is still missing, and Lou Williams’ situation casts a shadow on the team. Can Lue call up the necessary seriousness which was missing in 2019-20?
The Clippers didn’t change much personnel wise. Can Lue turn things around behind the scenes? Can Leonard do without his load management? We will likely see soon if the chemistry is okay. In terms of roster, the Clippers are still a top team.
RECORD 2019-20: 52-19
There were times that Rob Pelinka was considered a clown. He was the personification of everything that went wrong with the L.A. Lakers in the post-Kobe era. Magic Johnson even attacked Pelinka after he left the franchise, calling him a snake. That was May 2019. Then on November 21, 2020, Magic tweeted: “Lakers GM Rob Pelinka signing Montrezl Harrell, Wes Matthews Jr., AND trading for Dennis Schröder…. can we say Executive of the Year?” And Johnson didn’t even know then what Pelinka would do the rest of the off-season: keeping Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Markieff Morris while adding Marc Gasol as a free agent. Yes, the Lake Show will be better in 2020-21 than last season. And not just by a little bit. The start was the acquisition of Schröder from Oklahoma City, the new starter at point guard. Schröder is definitely an upgrade at the one for the Lakers. Of course LeBron James will run the attack most of the time but the 27-year-old German finally gives head coach Frank Vogel a second playmaker on the roster. Due to the ultra-short break between the Finals and the start of the 2020-21 season, James will certainly be held out of some games – meaning Schröder will be the Lakers’ primary ball-handler. And Schröder still is one of the quickest players in the NBA with his drives being one of his biggest strengths. Caldwell-Pope will line up next to him at shooting guard after he extended his deal for three years and 40 million dollars because the Lakers value his three-pointers and defense. He doesn’t need to be a stopper on defense as long as he hits his threes.
LeBron James’ throne is at the three and of course the small forward label doesn’t really fit as he spent 57 percent of his minutes in 2019-20 as playmaker according to bkref.com. Even at 36 years old, the four-time MVP can be counted on providing his 25 points, 8 rebounds and 10 assists, leading the Lakers on and off the court. Everything has been said about his performance and you expect him to avoid injuries. Still, Anthony Davis could be the most important player for the Lakers at power forward. Davis is not only a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year but also for MVP. His skills for a big man are just incredible. His three-point shooting percentage could be a bit better otherwise AD is playing at a level that only few in the history of the league have accomplished. Gasol will likely start at center. Of course the 35-year-old big man has seen his level drop off a little but his mix of passing, three-point shooting and clever defense provides Coach Vogel with an entirely different perspective. It’s still unclear who Gasol’s backup will be. Montrezl Harrell’s 2.01 meter stature makes some center match-ups too difficult for him. It’s possible that Vogel and Pelinka see him defensively more as power forward and offensively as center in pick-and-rolls and post-up, where he can use his strength. Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris are the first options off the bench at the forward positions with Kuz eventually working his way to the third scoring option. Schröder’s arrival might downgrade Kuzma in that regard and there is still the question if he fits alongside James and Davis. Morris meanwhile fits perfectly into his role. In the playoffs he hit 42.0 percent from downtown and provided a healthy portion defensive toughness. Alex Caruso and Wesley Matthews are the alternatives at the guard positions. Caruso is one of those ballers whose value cannot be judged in stats. He just understands the game, can play both guard spots, is always in the right spot and surprises people with his athleticism. Matthews is a defender who can aggravate the best players in the league and hit three-pointers.
This team has no weaknesses. The Lakers can play extremely big but also have the two best small ball big men in the world in James and Davis. Schröder brings in speed and playmaking and the defense is also at championship level.
There is still a little depth missing behind Gasol and the team could probably use another three-and-D guy. How will James deal with the short break? Will Kuzma’s status cause problems?
The L.A. Lakers are the top favorite for the 2021 NBA title. The new acquisitions have pushed the roster to a new level. Anthony Davis now knows what it takes to perform in the playoffs and Coach Vogel has the respect of his team.
by FIVE Magazine #174 – NBA PREVIEW 2021 – Text: Torben Adelhardt, Manuel Baraniak, Peter Bieg, Ole Frerks & André Voigt