What to look forward to in the 2020-21 NBA season

The NBA season is set of begin in near-empty or restricted arenas as COVID-19 continues to rage unimpeded in the United States.

LeBron James (left) and Anthony Davis signed contract extensions in the off-season to stabilise the makeup of the Los Angeles Lakers squad.   -  Getty Images

After a disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic cut major portions of the 2019-20 NBA season, the league managed to conduct a truncated regular season set of games followed by the playoffs in a bubble environment in Orlando successfully. The Los Angeles Lakers, headlined by superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis, emerged victors after registering consistently elite defensive and offensive performances in the bubble. With the NBA announcing a quick turnaround for the next season, which began on December 22, the normally four-month long NBA off-season was substantially truncated with the NBA draft and trading periods being conducted quickly. There was, however, little time for training camps, the “summer league” and more pre-season games that allow for newcomers — rookies and traded players — to acclimatise with their new teams. Here is a look at what the 2020-21 season could offer to viewers, even as the season is set of begin in near-empty or restricted arenas as Covid-19 continues to rage unimpeded in the US.

The frontrunner

The Lakers are primed to repeat. Both James and Davis signed contract extensions in the off-season to stabilise the makeup of the squad. The Lakers added another playmaker in Dennis Schröder to offset the loss of veteran point guard Rajon Rondo in free agency. Schroder is younger than Rondo and a better scorer. The franchise also added the reigning sixth man of the year, Montrezl Harrell, who switched sides from the arena-sharing Los Angeles Clippers and offers a dynamic scoring threat in the paint for his new team. Veteran Marc Gasol also signed up, bringing high basketball IQ, good defensive acumen and a playmaking ability from the elbow and his addition upgraded a big-man spot that was shared by the outgoing centres Javale McGee and Dwight Howard. The Lakers’ only major loss was the departure of veteran 3-and-D shooting guard Danny Green, who has always been a net positive for contending teams. But they retain enough firepower to be in a position to repeat despite an ageing James and an injury-prone Davis at the helm.

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The likely challengers

Among the challengers, the Clippers have sought to move on from their disappointing finish in 2020 by letting go of coach Doc Rivers (who shifted to the Philadelphia 76ers) and promoting his lead assistant Tyrone Lue. Lue coached the James-led Cleveland Cavaliers to their only title in 2016 and brings championship acumen, besides an ability to work with superstars. The Clippers have two of them in forwards Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, both of whom have the ability to play at elite levels on both offence and defence. George came a cropper in the 2020 playoffs, while Leonard failed in the pivotal Game 7 against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals. The Clippers also added Serge Ibaka to play a veteran role at the forward/centre position. Ibaka was Leonard’s teammate in the championship-winning 2019 Toronto Raptors squad, and his addition will better the team’s “chemistry” — one of the weaknesses that the Clippers cited for their playoff failure. The Clippers hope that they have the framework to contend again in the form of modern, big wing players who can play and defend multiple positions and schemes. On paper this seems accurate, but it remains to be seen if George in particular lives up to his talent when it comes to money time in the playoffs.

Reigning MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokounmpo just signed the richest contract in NBA history with a five-year, $228 million extension with the Milwaukee Bucks, who will seek to erase memories of their disappointing defeat in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Bucks were the leading defensive team prior to the bubble but suddenly collapsed as a unit in the playoffs. They failed to make adjustments after opponents such as the Miami Heat targeted Antetokounmpo’s lack of mid- and long-range shooting and shut off the paint, forcing other Bucks players to take on the load. The inability of secondary players such as point guard Eric Bledsoe to contribute led to the Bucks looking in a different direction in the off-season. They secured a trade for guard Jrue Holiday, who is much more of a two-way threat than Bledsoe, and shuffled their deck of role players, in the process offering both continuity and change. The Greek Freak will help them contend for a championship again, but it is on coach Mike Budenholzer and the other key players to find ways to thrive and ease things for their superstar. This is within the realm of possibility.

The Los Angeles Clippers have two superstars in forwards Kawhi Leonard (in white) and Paul George, both of whom have the ability to play at elite levels on both offence and defence.   -  Getty Images

 

The Miami Heat surprised everyone with a long run in the 2020 post-season, reaching the NBA finals and the dragging the Lakers to six games. The Heat are a well-coached team that emphasises a culture of fitness, team chemistry and discipline. The finals run was made possible by a superstar turn from forward Jimmy Butler, who added playmaking to his already strong two-way skills; ascension to stardom by centre Bam Adebayo; and effective performances by role players Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn (both rookies) and Duncan Robinson, among others. The core of the Heat squad is intact, but it will take another peak performance from them to overcome the threat of more talented squads in the Bucks and Boston Celtics this time around.

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The dark horse

After missing the 2019-20 season with an Achilles injury, forward Kevin Durant is back for his new team, the Brooklyn Nets. This time, he has a new sidekick in mercurial point guard Kyrie Irving (who won the 2016 championship playing second fiddle to James for the Cavaliers) and a squad that competed admirably without their injured stars in the bubble. The Nets are a versatile lot with scorers and shooters along with a new coach in Steve Nash. But Achilles injuries have historically been devastating for basketball players, and Durant will have to pull off a miracle if the Nets are to win their first-ever championship.

Trends to watch out for

The resurgence of the young and restless

The bubble showcased high-quality basketball as players hunkered within a camp-like environment thrived on chemistry and commitment. One of the surprises in the bubble was the performance of rookies — Herro from the Heat, rookie of the year Ja Morant and his teammate Brandon Clarke from the Memphis Grizzlies in particular. These young guns showed tremendous poise in their first year in the league. Herro’s sharpshooting was vital for a Heat team that made the finals, and Morant showed that he was more than capable as both a scorer and a playmaker, while the bouncy Clarke was effective from the bench. Rookies performed better in the bubble because of the games being played in a neutral venue with less pressure from screaming fans. Besides, they also shot better (as did other players) due to better depth perception in the empty arenas. This could continue to be the case early in the 2020-21 season.

The 2020-21 batch of rookies is not loaded with top-shelf talent, but there are a few players who could come onto their own with some seasoning going forward — Charlotte Hornets point guard LaMelo Ball, San Antonio Spurs swingman Devin Vassell and Cavaliers forward Isaac Okoro are the names that this writer is most impressed with based on pre-season play.

New Orleans Pelicans forward/centre, and now a sophomore, Zion Williamson brings to the table once-in-a-generation strength and agility. He played in a limited number of games in 2019-20 because of injury but was already an offensive force to reckon with. But his cluelessness on defence betrayed his immaturity in the league, and if he picks up on that front, he will be on the path to superstardom quicker than his peers. The Pelicans have hired a veteran coach in Stan Van Gundy who emphasises defence and a modern spread-offence. Williamson should benefit from his tutelage.

Small ball to skill ball

Teams such as the Houston Rockets in 2019-20 sought to render the centre spot redundant in a league that has made the style of play guard and wing-centric. The Rockets finished fourth in the Western Conference led by offensive powerhouse James Harden and playing a spread-offence system that relied only on long-jumpers and scoring at the rim. Their success in the post-season would have furthered more copycats among opponents of this system, but the Lakers’ emphatic victory put paid to that possibility.

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The Lakers adjusted to the Rockets’ five-out offence by playing their skilled power forward Davis at centre. They out-rebounded and muscled their way into the paint against the shorter Rockets on offence, while their wing players provided effective perimeter defence to thwart the Rockets’ three-point threat. In sum, skill ball with taller players was more effective than small ball. With players like Antetokounmpo, Davis, James, the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic, the Mavericks’ Luka Dončić, Durant and Leonard expected to steer their teams, expect a negation of the Rockets’ revolutionary small-ball approach. The Rockets themselves decided to move on from their coach Mike D’Antoni and have brought in two skilled centres in Christian Wood and (the oft-injured) DeMarcus Cousins, suggesting a repudiation of their 2020 approach or at least a reorientation towards a more traditional style of play.

The rise and rise of big wings

Skill ball today is defined by the ability of taller players to take up multidimensional roles beyond set responsibilities such as scoring in the post or in the paint, protecting the rim or even just spot-up shooting. Big wings such as Antetokounmpo, Dončić, James, the Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green, the 76ers’ Ben Simmons, the 6’ 8” rookie Ball, Leonard, Butler, the Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan, Washington Wizards rookie Deni Avdija and even centres such as Jokic can initiate the offence and play as playmakers, setting up teammates to shoot or score at the rim. More teams have routed their offence through such “point-forwards” (and point-centre in the case of Denver’s Jokic).

These forwards provide mismatches, forcing defences to scramble or to deploy switching on NBA set plays such as pick and rolls. Only the best and most-well-drilled defences manage to do this well, providing an advantage to these big wings. Expect this trend to remain salient in 2020-21 as most of these big wings will be in line for becoming the MVP (Doncic, Antetokounmpo and James in.