NBA season preview: From Lakers getting stronger to Bucks winning free agency, biggest talking points

After the most protracted, and yet abbreviated, season of the NBA comes the shortest season of the league. Here are the biggest talking points:

Amit Kamath December 22, 2020 15:23:08 IST
NBA season preview: From Lakers getting stronger to Bucks winning free agency, biggest talking points

File image of Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo. AP Photo

After the most protracted, and yet abbreviated, season of the NBA comes the shortest season of the league. Starting today, and wrapping up just before the Tokyo Olympics in July next year, the 2020-21 NBA season will see each team play 72 regular season games, and will feature a play-in tournament with four teams in each conference before the Playoffs to determine which franchises will seal the seventh and eight seeds.

Here are the biggest talking points:

The shadow of coronavirus

Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic is certain that for any team looking to contend for the Championship this year, avoiding COVID-19 cases will be essential. Sacramento Kings’ head coach Luke Walton is worried that one bad decision from someone in the franchise could knock out half of his team for 10-14 days. The NBA successfully evaded the coronavirus last time around by hosting the remainder of the season in a bio-secure bubble in Florida.

But this season, with teams travelling from city to city playing games besides playing at their home arenas, the shadow of coronavirus looms large over the league and teams. With players, and coaching staff being allowed to return to their homes, one ill-advised move could send a team’s season, or even the league, into a tailspin. Understandably, the league has released the schedule for only the first half of the season, while most franchises — barring a few like the Cleveland Cavaliers — will not have fans in the arenas at least when the season begins. And while vaccination has already begun in the US, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has categorically stated that they will not jump the queue to get players vaccinated first over high-priority groups who are at-risk or health workers. The league has, meanwhile, put together comprehensive coronavirus protocols in place, under which, teams could lose games or Draft picks for violations.

The Lakers win free agency…almost

The adage that something should not be fixed if it isn’t broken is not one Los Angeles Lakers’ General Manager Rob Pelinka is familiar with. This explains why the franchise that won the NBA Championship in October this year, went ahead and fortified with the likes of reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year, Montrezl Harrell (previously with city rivals LA Clippers); runner-up in the Sixth Man of the Year race, Dennis Schroder; Marc Gasol and Wesley Matthews. The addition of Harrell, Schroder and Gasol, who is a rare centre combining elite shooting with even more elite passing abilities, will be critical for the Lakers who will look to give LeBron James, and Anthony Davis rest through the regular season given they were running themselves into the ground just two months ago.

Add to this the fact that the Lakers got James, Davis and Kyle Kuzma to sign contract extensions, and it is no surprise that 81 percent of the league's General Managers voted for the Lakers to win the title again (as per a survey carried out by NBA.com).

Bucks score a victory for small-market teams

The reason the Lakers almost won the NBA Offseason Championship is because Milwaukee Bucks managed to convince reigning two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign a five-year contract extension. The news must come as a relief to teams not based in Los Angeles, New York, and Boston. Antetokounmpo’s decision goes against the trend of the best players wanting to play for the league’s marquee franchises. The Bucks also had a fruitful offseason after snapping up Jrue Holiday from the Pelicans. They almost had Sacramento’s Bogdan Bogdanovic too.

Rockets implode

This may have been the shortest offseason in decades, but there wasn’t a day when the Houston Rockets were not in the news. The Houston Rockets which ended the 2019-20 season are a completely different unit to the team which will take the floor against Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday. Rafael Stone is the new GM, replacing Daryl Morey, who left to become the President of Basketball Operations at the Philadelphia 76ers; Stephen Silas is the new coach, replacing Mike D’Antoni, who left to become an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets; John Wall is the team’s new point guard after being traded from Washington Wizards for Russell Westbrook. There are eight new players, including DeMarcus Cousins and Christian Wood — the duo’s presence indicates that the franchise is ready to look past the small ball revolution that had piqued the league’s interest last season.

Silas is a first-year head coach. Wall has not played since December 2018 due to injury. Westbrook, it has been reported, raised questions over the team’s culture on his way out after just one season. PJ Tucker has also taken to sighing audibly enough about the lack of contract extension being offered to him for people to start wondering if he’s disgruntled. The team has had barely any time to find cohesion due to the short offseason, and just two pre-season games.

But all of those concerns pale in front of the James Harden problem the team is currently facing. Harden, around whose whims the team has been build and rebuilt year-after-year, has reportedly demanded a trade out of the Rockets, not fancying another rebuild. Just to emphasise his point, he turned up late to the training camp, instead making appearances at the birthday party of rapper Lil Baby in Atlanta without wearing a face mask. He was then spotted at a nightclub in Las Vegas.

When asked by reporters what he was doing in Atlanta and Las Vegas instead of joining the team, he replied, “I was just training.” When asked what he was training for, he said: “The start of the NBA season.”

Harden, as per reports, has handed his team a list of teams where he would be keen to be traded to, including Morey’s Sixers. Where Rockets go from here, is anybody’s guess.

“That's the NBA. The NBA isn’t going to be roses every day,” said Silas earlier this month while talking about issues with the team.

Can Butler do it again?

While the rest of the world was expecting the Bucks or the Celtics to make it to the Finals from the East last time around, the Miami Heat, thanks to Jimmy Butler playing out of his skin, players like Jae Crowder, Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro stepping it up, and other factors like Heat Culture were the East’s contenders against the Lakers in the Championship series. But how many games can Butler play out of skin? And with Crowder gone, can Adebayo, Robinson and Herro step it again?

In a season where players’ self-discipline could be the difference between having a full roster for games or having half the team out due to a COVID-19 outbreak, Miami’s well-drilled culture could help. The Lakers have indicated that they will look to give players like James and Davis rest, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Butler, who played 47.11 minutes against LA in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, will not be on a minutes restriction.

“This is the life he chose,” said Spoelstra at the start of the month. “Our season last year felt like three seasons. This year has been like no other year. There has been a brief break between seasons. But our younger players are probably ready. Bam was ready two or three weeks ago.”

Steph returns to boost Warriors’ hopes

After nearly half a decade of being perennial favourites going into a season, the Golden State Warriors were one of the eight teams missing out on being part of the NBA’s restart in a bio-secure bubble last season. One of the biggest reasons behind this was injuries, which robbed them of Stephen Curry, who played just five games last season due to injury, and Klay Thompson, who missed all of last season due to an ACL injury. In the preseason, Curry made a successful return to the court.

And made a splash off the court.

However, Thompson will again miss another season with an Achilles injury, leaving Draymond Green and top Draft picks Andrew Wiggins (No 1 overall in 2014 Draft) and 19-year-old James Wiseman (No 2 overall in 2020 Draft) as the support cast for Curry. With the play-in tournament this season involving four teams from seventh to 10th in each conference, the Warriors should not be discounted from making it to the Playoffs.

Clippers face questions over team chemistry, leadership

The Los Angeles Clippers were heavily favoured to emerge out of the shadow of the Lakers last season after they lured Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to the team. However, their season ended in ignominy after they allowed the Denver Nuggets to overhaul a 1-3 deficit to beat them in the Western Conference Semi-Finals. In the ensuing din, loads of questions were raised over the leadership skills of George and Leonard, and the team’s chemistry. They lost Harrell in offseason, but managed to replace him with the formidable Serge Ibaka, who besides helping the franchise with defence and perimeter shooting, was also with Leonard at the Raptors when they won the title two seasons ago. That series loss to the Nuggets is something that will dominate conversation about the franchise for some time. Leonard and George famously scored zero points in the decisive Game 7 against the Nuggets.

“That Game 7 hasn’t stuck with me at all,” Leonard told reporters earlier this month. “It definitely leaves a bad taste in the mouth when you blow a 3-1 lead. But these are things that build a player. The road to winning an NBA Championship is hard.”

George, meanwhile, said that series defeat was tough to get over.

“Last year was an unacceptable year for me. But this time around, I got the chance to have an off-season with the team, which I couldn’t last season. Me being one of the top players in a team which gave up a 3-1 lead still haunts me,” he said.

The team has also appointed Tyronn Lue as the head coach after letting go of Doc Rivers, who found a coaching gig with the Sixers.

Durant, Irving return

It is hard not to be intrigued by the Brooklyn Nets. For one, they have in their ranks sage enthusiast and ball-handler-extraordinaire Kyrie Irving, and the phenomenally skilled Kevin Durant. Both players are coming into the season off injuries. Steve Nash will be making his debut as an NBA head coach. On top of this, the franchise has also been in conversation all offseason as a likely destination for Harden making it all the more intriguing. Expect them to set the Eastern Conference abuzz. Or flame out. Either way, it will be a spectacular sight.

What else to look forward to…

After playing just 24 regular season games in his rookie season, Zion Williamson has reportedly shed 25 pounds and will play without any minutes restrictions this season. The fact that he will be playing under hard-task master Stan van Gundy will only bode well for his development. The Pelicans also added Steven Adams to the team, which will put some much-needed muscle around Zion in the paint.

Despite going 8-0 in the seeding games in the bubble last season, the Phoenix Suns missed out on the Playoffs. This time, they added 10-time All-Star Chris Paul at the point guard position. His presence is expected to help bring out the best from young players like Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton. Who knows, this time the Suns might make the Playoffs too after 10 years.

The Sixers are also a team to watch out for, with a new coach in Rivers, and a new GM in Morey. Additions of Seth Curry and Danny Green will go some way in addressing perimeter shooting concerns of a team headlined by Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. The team has reportedly made overtures to bring Harden to the franchise, which might see Simmons leaving.

In acquiring Westbrook from Rockets, the Washington Wizards have assembled a backcourt consisting of two players (Bradley Beal and Westbrook) who were among the top seven scorers in last season. The Wizards will be in contention for a Playoffs spot, just like teams like Boston Celtics, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks.

But with the shadow of the coronavirus lurking over the first few months of the season, it will be nerve-wracking for the league, players and teams.

Ass Rockets’ coach Silas said the NBA isn’t going to be roses every day.

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