2020 has been a year full of uncertainty, and the NBA is no different. Unlike recent seasons, there is no single prohibitive favorite. There isn’t anyone merely playing for 2nd place, like in the Kevin Durant-era Warriors years.
It is my belief that you could talk yourself into 8 teams potentially winning it all in 2020-21. However, no team is without its flaws, and below is the biggest question each contender will have to answer if they want to win a championship:
Milwaukee Bucks: Will Mike Budenholzer finally make adjustments?
We know the drill. Milwaukee is going to be really good again in the regular season, and Giannis is going to put up video game numbers. However, their drop coverage defensive scheme that works so well in the regular season has been exposed in their last 2 playoff series against legitimate competition (sorry Orlando).
Budenholzer is not the only one to blame. Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe didn’t shoot well in both playoff series against Toronto and Miami. Giannis showed his limitations, proving to be ineffective against a defense that “walls up” against him. The acquisitions of Jrue Holiday and DJ Augustin certainly upgrade their backcourt, but the roster is not what has held Milwaukee back the past two seasons. It is the refusal to change the schemes.
Drop coverage is where the on-ball defender goes over the screen while the screener’s man “drops”, protecting the basket. While it works in the regular season against inferior competition, it routinely gets exposed in the playoffs for a few reasons:
– It is guarded the same almost every pick and roll. In a 7-game series, it becomes very predictable and easy to beat when opponents know where the defense is going to be.
– It allows for a TON of open space for pull-up jumpers and floaters, which highly skilled players easily feast on, as shown by Goran Dragic’s floater here:
With all of this said: coaching is hard, and Budenholzer deserves a ton of credit for his part in making Milwaukee so successful. But the last two playoffs have made it clear that he will need to adjust his schemes to get past other contenders.
Philadelphia 76ers: Will Simmons and Embiid work?
This is the age-old question that has surrounded Philly for years now. The 76ers roster last year struggled to fit together, with a lack of shooting clogging the lane for both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The newly hired Daryl Morey made sure to address this, trading away Al Horford and Josh Richardson, acquiring shooters Seth Curry and Danny Green to help space the floor.
I’m buying this Sixers roster, as we’ve seen Simmons and Embiid thrive together with shooting around them before. The last time Philadelphia had this much floor spacing ability was arguably the 2017-18 season. The supporting cast of J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, and Dario Šarić helped the 76ers cruise to 52 wins, with Philadelphia’s net rating being an admirable +15.3 when Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid shared the court together. If you give them enough shooting, those two can reach their full potential. And if the 76ers have any championship aspirations, they will need that to happen.
Denver Nuggets: Can they handle actual expectations?
Although the basketball community respected the Nuggets the past two seasons (they’ve been a top 3 seed in the West both years after all), not many took them seriously as contenders. The team may have changed some minds this past postseason, going on a magical run that included two 3-1 series comebacks before bowing out to the eventual champions.
With high performance comes high expectations. Denver lost some pieces, including Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee, and Torrey Craig. However, they added JaMychal Green, the Argentinian Fernando Campazzo, and will hopefully see fully healthy seasons from Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Michael Porter Jr.
There are also increased expectations for Jamal Murray, who averaged a blistering 26.5 points per game on 45.3% shooting from three during the playoffs. Prior to the bubble, Murray struggled with inconsistent play. He’ll now have a full season to show that “Bubble Murray” is here to stay.
The Nuggets are running back a very similar roster and should be one of the best offenses in the league. Now it’s just a matter of proving that last season wasn’t a fluke.
Boston Celtics: Will they address their lack of depth at wing?
The Celtics appear to be pretty thin at wing behind Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to begin the season. Aaron Nesmith, a 6’6 rookie out of Vanderbilt, can certainly shoot it, but there are questions about his defensive ability, and he hasn’t played a 5-on-5 game that counted since January. Alongside him on the bench is Semi Ojeleye, who is really more of a front court player that only played a grand total of 22 minutes in their 6-game series against Miami. The only other realistic option in-house would be Romeo Langford, who logged 28% of his minutes at SF according to Basketball Reference. However, he is returning from a wrist injury suffered in the bubble, and coming off a rookie season that left a lot to be desired.
It’s entirely possible Nesmith can hold his own defensively and turns out to be a productive rookie. But even then, they will still probably need to add another 3-and-D wing player. And that’s the best-case scenario. It’s also entirely possible Nesmith, like many rookies, will struggle his first season, which leaves Boston with no real, legitimate wing off the bench.
Needless to say, that’s a huge problem. Fortunately, Boston has plenty of picks and a massive trade exception of $28.5M to acquire talent before the deadline.
Miami Heat: Are you ready to do it all over again?
Miami caught lightning in a bottle, advancing to the NBA Finals as a 5 seed after dispatching Indiana, Milwaukee and Boston. However, they face the shortest offseason in NBA history, a mere 71 days. Fortunately, the Heat retain almost all of their rotation, only replacing Jae Crowder and Derrick Jones Jr. with Avery Bradley and Moe Harkless.
The main concern here is how the team will hold up physically and mentally. The players and coaches can say they’re ready to go right now, which I believe. But what about when you get into April and May, games 51, 52, 53. Will they be saying the same thing? Time will tell.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned this past NBA season, it’s to not underestimate Heat culture. I am hesitant to say they will do a lot of load managing with Pat Riley and Jimmy Butler around, and I only hope that doesn’t come back to haunt them down the line.
Brooklyn Nets: Who’s playing defense?
It appears defense might be optional in New York’s most populous borough. The Nets do have Jarrett Allen, who is a stout rim protector. The recently acquired Bruce Brown is a tough defender as well, but it’s unknown how much playing time he’ll get in a crowded Brooklyn backcourt. Kevin Durant was a fantastic help side defender in Golden State, and hopefully his torn achilles doesn’t hinder that.
After Allen, Brown, and Durant, it gets ugly. The rest of the team includes Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris Levert, who aren’t making any All-Defensive teams anytime soon. Joe Harris and Landry Shamet might as well be holograms, and big man Deandre Jordan isn’t what he once was.
Brooklyn will win a lot of games and put up points. My concern is when it comes down to a 7-game series, does Steve Nash have enough players on his bench to keep the other team from scoring 120?
Bonus Question: How will their offense work?
I will be closely watching the Brooklyn Nets all year, because I find so many aspects of this team fascinating. I could write a whole article about their locker room being led by Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, but that’s been talked about enough in NBA circles. I’m more interested in their offense, which begs many questions that will soon be answered.
On the surface, an offense with a core of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris Levert sounds incredible. However, Brooklyn’s four best players all need the ball in their hands to be fully maximized. I’m not worried about Durant, but Kyrie Irving is at his best when he’s a ball dominant point guard. Spencer Dinwiddie is not a great player off the ball, and Caris Levert actually might be a hindrance to their offense if he isn’t creating off the dribble as well.
Levert shot 31.6% on catch-and-shoot jumpers last season and was in the 28th percentile on spot-up shots. Turning Levert into merely a catch-and-shoot guy for the Nets won’t prove fruitful and would certainly not be an ideal scenario for Caris.
Add into the mix that Spencer Dinwiddie will want his touches, Joe Harris and Landry Shamet needing their shots, and Bruce Brown wanting his minutes, there might just be simply too many mouths to feed. With that might come some tension eventually forming in the Nets locker room, and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant will have to be the mediators.
Get your popcorn ready.
Los Angeles Clippers: Will they acquire a true point guard before the trade deadline?
The Clippers will almost certainly take the regular season more seriously than last year, as coaches and players have come out saying how the lack of practice and continuity negatively affected them, resulting in a 3-1 series lead collapsing at the hands of the Denver Nuggets.
On the court, a lack of an offensive initiator was a problem for Los Angeles. Patrick Beverley, while a great defender, is not someone the Clippers relied on to run their offense, and Lou Williams is more of a shot-creator for himself. Luke Kennard, who was acquired from Detroit this offseason, is someone capable of creating for others with the ball in his hands, but it’s likely the Clippers will need more than that if they want to get where they want to go.
The Clippers still have cards up their sleeve to use this season. The question is whether they like their hand right now.
Los Angeles Lakers: Can LeBron hold off Father Time?
Returning from the shortest offseason in NBA history, LeBron James will most likely take the regular season easy, prioritizing rest so his body can be fresh for the playoffs. It seems like the narrative is said every year, but LeBron James is going into his 18th season and will be 36 years old in a little more than a week. He has to slow down eventually. I’m not even suggesting it will happen this year, but this will be his toughest test against Father Time yet.
The Lakers were the best team in the NBA last season and only got better this offseason. Los Angeles added Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell to bolster their bench scoring, which was an issue last season. Extending Anthony Davis also allows the Lakers to have a better vision of their plan whenever LeBron decides to call it quits.
However, they still need LeBron James to be LeBron James to win the Finals. He is a marvel of longevity, and Los Angeles will need King James to hold his throne for another season if they have any hope of repeating as NBA champions.