NBA

What to Look for Heading into 2021 NBA Season

The 2019-2020 NBA Season finally ended almost two weeks ago with the Los Angeles Lakers winning their 17th NBA Championship to tie them with their longtime rival Boston Celtics for most titles in history. Players, staff, media members, and everyone else housed in the NBA’s Orlando Campus Bubble for three months seemed to exhale with joy that the 13 month season was finally in the books. The Lakers and Heat were able to head home or on vacation, see loved ones, and sleep in their own beds. Fans meanwhile looked to be going through some sort of NBA Bubble fatigue as well, after some of the best playoff basketball in recent memory. It truly felt great to have the season finally be finished. And while we are all ready for the offseason, the many unknowns heading into next season make this one of the stranger “summers” in NBA History. So what should you be keeping an eye out for while we wait to hear exactly when next season will start?

The Lakers were victorious in Orlando, and will head into the
2021 NBA Season likely title favorites.

Free Agency, the Draft, and Blockbuster-ish Trades

Where else can we start besides the offseason? While it won’t happen in the summer as usual, this winter offseason is setting up to be plenty interesting. The Draft, originally planned for late June, is expected to take place on Wednesday, November 18th. Although projected to be one of the weaker drafts in terms of top end talent, there are some notable names available, and some of the teams drafting will have different priorities than usual. The Golden State Warriors, fresh off a 15-50 season, where Steph Curry and Klay Thompson played a combined five games, have the number two pick and seem destined to turn the draft upside down. With the Splash Brothers healthy, and a motivated Draymond Green back in action, the Warriors will again remain amongst the title favorites in 2021. However, they do have some holes in the roster to fill and more assets than most title contenders to use to acquire the next integral part of the team. Using the #2 pick, plus potentially Andrew Wiggins and his $30 million for salary filler, Golden State will likely be looking to add a center who can do at least two of three things: Space the floor, defend the rim, and finish alley-oops. While Wiggins is seen as a negative asset, the Warriors will be aggressive and should find a partner to fulfill their needs. Keep an eye on the following players to potentially end up in Golden State via trade:

While they may not seem worth the #2 pick, we have to remember that the 2020 draft class doesn’t have a superstar level talent like Zion Williamson or Ja Morant sitting there to be taken, and many teams see taking back Wiggins as something they need to receive an asset for.

Free Agency this year should be much more lowkey than most years. Firstly, teams and players haven’t been told what the salary cap will be for next season. Because max contracts are based off a percentage of the cap, this is pretty important information. In addition, with only a few notable high level free agents, many teams are saving cap space for 2021 to chase the likes of:

In addition the following players could opt out of their deals to join other teams in free agency:

Meanwhile, free agents for the 2020 offseason include:

While there’s not a superstar level free agent for teams to chase this offseason, there are a few stars available via trade who have the ability to shape next season’s playoff race.

Chris Paul

ESPN’s the Jump crew discusses possible destinations for Chris Paul in the 2021 season,

CP3 proved the haters wrong with his All-Star level production last season. Remember, the Rockets traded the Thunder two first round draft picks and two pick swaps to land Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul. Despite the Rockets beating the Thunder in the playoffs this year, the trade is not seeming to be the overall success that the Rockets had hoped for. Paul, who turned 35 in May, averaged 17.6 points and 6.7 assists this season, while shooting 48% on his shots, an improvement of 7% over the year prior. Given the unexpected production from Chris Paul, it’s almost guaranteed the Thunder will look to move him this offseason to begin their rebuild and add to the bounty of assets and picks they received for trading Paul George last year. So who might want to trade for a 35 year old point guard making an average of $43 million over the next two seasons?

Milwaukee

Any and all CP3 trade scenarios begin with Milwaukee. After another disappointing playoff exit, it is officially time for the Bucks to tinker on the edge of panic. Face of the franchise and back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time after this upcoming season, and while it seemed the team had plenty of time to build a contender two seasons ago, that has quickly vanished. Not only is the competition out West loaded, the East has been a formidable foe as well. Boston, Miami, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia can all make the case that they should be favored in the playoffs over the Bucks who have proven to be a juggernaut during the regular season, before floundering in the postseason. That explains the need to bring in a veteran playmaker and floor general like Paul who can take the ball out of Giannis hands in half-court situations and set up his teammates better than almost anyone else in the league. Additionally, CP3 would add a pick and roll ball handler, with range to the three point line, and immediately become the Bucks best option in the last five minutes of the game. The Thunder ranked as one of the best “clutch teams” in the league, and CP3 was a large part of that, shooting 52% with the game within 5 points in the last 5 minutes of a game. The Bucks may not want to admit it, but this is beginning to have a similar feel to LeBron’s final season in Cleveland (the first time).

Any trade for CP3 is complicated due to his large salary, which Milwaukee would have to match due to being over the salary cap. In addition, while the Thunder are likely looking to receive draft pick compensation, they will also want to receive a young player to add to the organization. Due to those needs, Milwaukee may not be the perfect fit for Oklahoma City, but as many organizations do, expect them to “do right” by their star veteran player and send him to a team that can finally get him close to competing for a championship, as he’s never made even the Conference Finals.

The framework for a trade could revolve around Eric Bledsoe, role players for salary match, a young player like Donte DiVincenzo, and a pick. Milwaukee owns Indiana’s 2020 pick, #24, which would likely need to be included as well. I’m not sure Milwaukee has the best package, but the Thunder will have limited options despite Paul’s resurgence this past season.

New York

The Knicks desperately are looking for a way to change their culture and rid themselves of the decades of being a laughingstock across the league. Just last year fans had dreams of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and Zion Williamson playing in Madison Square Garden, but now are left with RJ Barrett and an assortment of front court players and players who haven’t fully lived up to their expectations as high draft picks. Veterans around the league have said that despite the “glitz and glamour” of playing at MSG, the ownership and team executives have simply made it a place most players don’t want to end up. The Knicks see that all changing by bringing in a floor general like CP3. Having a coach on the floor, who can control the pace and help the young players find their rhythm would be extremely beneficial to the Knicks and explains why they may want to trade for Paul and his contract despite having no championship aspirations. By bringing in Paul for the last two years of his contract, the hope would be he can turn around the on court product and the culture enough, that by 2022 or 2023, the Knicks could finally attract one of those high profile free agents they’ve been chasing since LeBron left Cleveland in 2010. Who knows, maybe Donovan Mitchell will come home in 2025?

The Knicks may be one of the easier teams to find a trade for Paul as they have plenty of cap space and wouldn’t have to match salaries. The 2020 draft is not as highly regarded as the year before, meaning it’s possible the Knicks could be willing to trade the 8th pick in this year’s draft in the deal, or swap it with OKC’s 25th pick. Among young players the Thunder could look to add to their young roster are Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, and Dennis Smith. For CP3, while he wouldn’t be competing for a title in his last few years in the league, he would be able to continue the mentorship role he had in OKC, and play for his old agent and current Knicks team president Leon Rose, while playing in New York, which would help his already successful brand.

Los Angeles (both teams)

The last options I wanted to mention here are the two teams in L.A. Chris Paul has already spent six seasons in L.A. playing for the Clippers, and would fill a needed role on both teams, who should once again top Vegas list as title favorites to begin the season. A trade to either team remains unlikely due to the salary cap hurdling that would need to be done. Both teams already have two max salary players, and rosters devoid of young exciting talent that the Thunder may want back in a trade, leaving a three or four team trade as the most likely option should Paul end up in L.A. For fans, it would be great to see Paul compete for a championship for either team, but finally playing in purple and gold alongside longtime friend LeBron could be the great separator if Paul had his choice. Remember, he almost (should have) ended up playing alongside Kobe Bryant on the Lakers way back in 2011.

Jrue Holiday

ESPN’s the Jump crew discusses possible destinations for Jrue Holiday in the 2021 season,

Jrue Holiday is maybe the only player in the league right now who has been in as many legitimate trade rumors as Chris Paul. As a 30 year old starting combo guard, his timeline doesn’t align well with that of the Pelicans young core in Zion Williamson (20), Lonzo Ball (22), and Brandon Ingram (23). In addition, he has two years left on his deal, but with the last year being a player option, it’s likely he would leave for free agency in the summer of 2021 to take one last run at competing for a championship anyways. It makes sense for the Pelicans to explore his trade market, and there appear to be at least two teams with the assets and interest to make a deal work. In return the Pels will likely be looking for a young up and coming player to add to the roster and at least one first round draft pick.

Brooklyn

The team most reported to have interest in trading for Holiday is the Brooklyn Nets. Expecting to be healthy going into next season with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving leading the way, the Nets have been looking to find a third “star” to bring in, and Holiday seems to fit many of their needs. In addition to being a solid three point shooting threat, Holiday can play both guard positions, and is one of the better guard defenders which would be very beneficial playing next to Kyrie Irving. In his seven seasons in New Orleans, Holiday has averaged 18.9 points, 7.3 assists, and 1.7 steals.

In any Jrue Holiday to the Nets deal, Brooklyn would likely need to send back young shooting guard Caris LeVert, who is coming off his best season in the NBA, despite missing almost half the season with an injury. While he leaves much to be desired on the defensive end, Levert is capable of handling the ball (as seen by him handling point guard duties in the bubble), and shot 36% from three point range last season. He’ll need to improve his efficiency and limit the turnovers, but he would add an enticing fourth member of the Pelicans core at only 26, fitting nicely into the young starting lineup. Throw in the 22nd pick and salary to match, and we might have a deal. If the Pelicans are hoping for more in return, adding JJ Redick along with Holiday could enable them to get back young center Jarrett Allen, who could serve as the starting center moving forward. With the Nets signing DeAndre Jordan to a long term deal last year, they may be more willing to move Allen than previously thought. For the Nets, Redick would add another valuable off-ball shooter, and act as insurance if they lose sharpshooter Joe Harris in free agency.

Denver

The Nuggets are also looking to pair their young star point guard Jamal Murray with a defensive minded combo guard. While they don’t have someone as exciting as LeVert to send back (no they’re not trading Michael Porter Jr.), the Nuggets do have a variety of options to send back to New Orleans. If the Pels are interested in Gary Harris, Bol Bol, or Monte Morris, the Nuggets would likely be willing to trade two of those three, along with the 22nd pick in this year’s draft which they have courtesy of Houston.

Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are two of the most notable stars returning from injury in 2021.
(Photo from Hoops Habit)

The Return of the Injured Stars

One reason to always be excited heading into a new season is the return of injured All-Star or All-NBA level players. Because of the extended break due to the onset of the pandemic, many injured players have had extra time to rehab their bodies in an effort to ensure they return in 2021 in the best shape to succeed. Among injured star players from before the shutdown in March who we expect to be fully healthy next season are:

In addition, players like Ben Simmons, Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and Kristaps Porzingis should return close to 100% after dealing with injuries in the bubble or issues rehabbing during the league shutdown. Steph Curry returned to the court from his hand fracture in March, but only managed to play one game before the league shutdown.

Achilles injuries are notoriously difficult to return from and require patience in the players’ estimated 12 month rehab. Due to the pandemic, many players have had ample time to get comfortable getting back to full health, but this could also lead to some rust. The Brooklyn Nets will surely be among the favorites to make it out of the Eastern Conference, but many still wonder if Durant can return to 90% of his pre-injury self. Durant hasn’t played since June 2019, giving him a possible 19 months between games. Wall, meanwhile, hasn’t played since December 2018, meaning next season will be his first NBA games in over two years. Hopefully the added time to recover will allow these players to return close to 100%, if not better.

The West is Loaded….Again….For Real

I know, analysts and experts tell us that the Western Conference is unbelievably stacked year in and year out… However, next season, that might be more true than ever before. With the return of the Splash Brothers, the Western Conference could have 11-13 teams competing for the eight playoff spots. Besides possibly the Sacramento Kings and Oklahoma City Thunder, each team in the West has a legitimate case that they should and will make the eight team playoff in the West. The Phoenix Suns, despite having not made the playoffs since 2010, were one win from competing in the NBA’s Playoff Play-in game in Orlando after an impressive 8-0 record in the seeding games. The Minnesota Timberwolves have the #1 pick, a usual sign of having a shot at making the playoffs, but will hope the All-Star tandem of D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns can be a force to build around. The Pelicans should fall back somewhat with a new head coach and potentially trading Jrue Holiday, but if Zion and Ingram are able to stay healthy for most of the season, they could find a spark and finish fighting for a playoff spot. Remember, last season the Pelicans began the season 6-22, before turning things around in December, even before Zion returned from injury.

As with most years injuries and offseason transactions will play a role in leveling the field. Going into last season, many thought the Dallas Mavericks wouldn’t make the playoffs because of the loaded field. The injuries to Klay Thompson the year before, then Steph Curry a few weeks into the season though, opened up room for the Mavericks, and more the Trail Blazers to sneak in. With young up and coming teams like Memphis and New Orleans also in the conference, the bottom of the field will be feisty and hungry to prove they belong and make a second year leap like Dallas did with Luka Dončić leading the way.

Giannis and the Bucks arrive in Orlando ahead of the NBA’s restart in July 2020. (Photo by Bucks)

How Will COVID-19 Affect the Season?

As with all parts of the ongoing pandemic, it’s hard to plan in advance for how our lives will be upended weeks from now, let alone months. Among the main concerns are having some number of fans at games by midseason (to retain some of the 40% revenue fans bring in.) While the Bubble Campus at Disney World worked wonders at keeping players and staff safe, it was a tremendous undertaking for the NBA, staff, players and their families. It’s expected that the 2021 season will be played in home markets for the US-based teams (the Toronto Raptors may end up in Louisville), thus teams will be traveling across the country, potentially opening up players to becoming infected. As we’ve seen in the NFL and MLB, playing without a bubble can be difficult to keep players and team officials from being exposed to the virus, and that of course has many complications for the league including altering normal schedule alignments to dealing with multiple players on the same team having to undergo self-isolation after being exposed. With many teams normally playing 3-4 games per week, a positive test to a key player could cost them at least 6 games, which during a likely shortened season, could result in missing at least 10% of the games; And that’s only if the player is asymptomatic.

While nothing is official (The NBA has a call on Friday to discuss initial options), it’s likely the usual formatting of schedules will be changed. Potential solutions broached by NBA media include having teams consolidate cross-conference road trips, to limit the number of flights back and forth across the country. For example, the Lakers could spend a month road tripping across the East Coast, playing each team once on their court, allowing them to stay in the Western half of the country for most of the season. While a month on the road may not be as bad as spending three months in one hotel, there will likely be pushback on that option.

Another solution could be having each conference play more of its games against each other. For example, instead of playing each team in the opposing conference twice, it could make sense to have each team only play once out of conference, and 5 times (instead of 4 or 3) in conference. To shake some of the inequities in strength of schedule due to the Western Conference having seemingly more talent, maybe this is the one season the NBA decides to seed all playoff teams 1-16 instead of using the traditional 8 from the East and 8 from the West model.

Either way, it’s evident that the NBA will need to put policies in place to help teams dealing with an outbreak. Allowing teams to hold more than 15 players will likely be necessary along with giving teams a short term COVID injured reserve and finding an easy way to make G-League players available for call ups on short notice.

Adam Silver has his hands full planning the 2021 NBA Season calendar. (Photo from USA Today)

When will the Season Start?

Due to all the uncertainty, the biggest question of note really has to be figuring out when we will see our favorite players return to the court. The NBA has told teams that it will give them a two month notice before officially deciding when opening night will be. While initial reports over the summer were pointing towards an early December or possibly Christmas Day start, that would appear unlikely, as the NBA would need to be notifying teams in only three days. More likely it seems is the NBA planning for a start on MLK Day 2021, January 18th. The national holiday has been one of the more important days for the league over the last 15 years. Similar to Christmas, the NBA usually has matinee games on National TV, along with a more robust full slate of games, and gives them a chance to highlight many of the social issues that players have fought to keep at the forefront of our thoughts during the season. With the social justice initiatives that came from the time in the Bubble, starting next season on MLK Day makes too much sense. A start on MLK Day would mean the league alerting teams around November 18th, the date of the NBA Draft. In this scenario, teams could hold a 1-2 week rookie mini camp post draft, then invite the veterans back to begin some individual workouts, before ramping up to full training camp activities in early-middle December.

If the season does start in January, look for the league to condense the schedule some. While owners and players have been reluctant to reduce the number of games historically, the league is going to want to make sure they can finish the season by July or possibly early August at the latest, to both avoid NFL games and better align the 2021-22 season with its traditional October-June schedule.

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