Coming off the shortest NBA off-season of all time, the opening weeks of the 2020-2021 NBA season have been anything but predictable. Here are The McGill Tribune’s predictions for the rest of the 2020-2021 season.
The Toronto Raptors
Following a valiant playoff run in the bubble, the Toronto Raptors have stumbled to a 5-8 start to begin the 2020-2021 NBA season. Although COVID-19, a shortened off-season, and relocation to Tampa Bay are significant factors in the team’s lacklustre start, Nick Nurses’ squad’s inability to execute and play sound team basketball is the main reason for the rough beginning. During the off-season, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol left for Los Angeles; both were instrumental to the team’s ferocious defense, which has consistently ranked among the best in the league over past seasons. Additionally, the duo added strong rebounding, with floor spacing and timely scoring on the offensive end of the floor.
In an attempt to replace Ibaka and Gasol, the Raptors signed Aron Baynes as a free agent replacement in November. However, he has been poor on both ends of the floor, earning himself a frequent spot on the bench. The secondary unit, a strong point for Toronto during the past several seasons, has struggled, particularly Norman Powell, who has shot just 37 field goal percentage. 2020 All-Star forward Pascal Siakam has also continued to disappoint following his subpar performance in the Orlando bubble, averaging just 19.9 points per game on 45 field goal percentage, which is not strong enough for a primary scorer on a team expecting to contend for a championship.
By now, the Raptors are at a crossroads regarding the future. The current team cannot compete with Brooklyn, Philadelphia, or Boston. The front office must decide to rebuild or pursue additional help. Rebuilding around a core of Siakam, Van Vleet, and Boucher would be the better option. Despite all he has done for the city and Raptors organization, moving veteran All-Star Kyle Lowry to another team would be an important start in rebuilding another championship roster. With Lowry’s contract set to expire at the end of the season, President Masai Ujiri will be tasked with making these decisions for the franchise, truly holding the future of the team in his hands.
The Brooklyn Nets
With a record of 9-6 to begin the season and multiple questions arising surrounding All-Star Kyrie Irving’s off-court behaviour, doubts have started to form regarding the Brooklyn Nets’ chemistry and future success. However, this skepticism has seemingly been put to rest following the acquisition of former MVP guard James Harden. In a four-team deal involving multiple players and draft picks, the Nets traded away their future with the hopes of winning immediately, creating a new “big three” led by future Hall-of-Famer Kevin Durant. Harden posted a 30-point triple-double in his Nets debut, an extremely promising start that led many to believe this squad will challenge the Lakers for the 2021 NBA championship. Assuming a continued successful pairing of former Oklahoma City Thunder teammates Durant and Harden, the front office could decide to trade All-Star guard Kyrie Irving for depth, which the Nets currently lack. The Nets traded Chris Levert and Jarett Allen, among other key secondary players, in order to attain Harden, thinning the team’s bench significantly. Irving has broken league COVID-19 protocols and has only played in half of the games this season, taking time off for “personal reasons”. Irving has been wildly unpredictable since leaving Cleveland in 2017, and the cohesiveness as well as the future of the team could benefit from his departure in an exchange for young, committed role players.
The Golden State Warriors
Since the slew of injuries that ended the Golden State Warriors’ chances of winning the NBA championship in 2019, the once-dominant team has been looked over as a serious contender for the following seasons. The departure of Kevin Durant to the Brooklyn Nets and the injuries suffered by Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry left the team without a winning core. As a result, the Warriors finished last in the league last year, managing only 15 wins. While some believed the team could return to playoff contention leading up to the season, Klay Thompson’s Achilles tear quickly snuffed out the hopes and dreams of those anticipating the return of the Splash Brothers.
Although the Warriors had a slow start to the 2020-2021 season, losing miserably to the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, Steph Curry quickly reminded the basketball world that he was a force to be reckoned with, scoring a career-high 62 points against the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 3. This season has seen the advent of a new Steph Curry: Without Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson, Curry has taken on more minutes and become more ball-dominant.
Stephen Curry hasn’t been the only factor in this new Warriors team. Second overall pick James Wiseman has been unexpectedly effective in his first season in the NBA, averaging 11 points and six rebounds per game. His explosiveness as a seven-foot centre combined with his instinctual proficiency in the pick-and-roll has made him a surprising addition to their roster.
Even Andrew Wiggins, a player that has failed to live up to expectations throughout his career, has shown newfound potential with the Golden State Warriors. His proficient three-point shooting, instinctive savvy on the pick-and-roll, and excellent defence have made him a good fit on a team lacking in those three areas.
Despite the upsides, the Warriors are still 7-6 to start the season, meaning the team will have to grow into their new roles to win more games. While many of their new assets look promising, more depth will be needed on the roster if the Warriors have any chance of making it to the playoffs.
The New York Knicks
The New York Knicks have been terrible for as long as most can remember, and the last few seasons have been increasingly discouraging for long-suffering fans in the Tri-State Area. Last off-season, the Knicks completely overhauled their front office and replaced their coaching staff. Instead of focussing on free-agency acquisitions, the team has committed to developing their young players and cultivating a culture of hard work and competition.
The addition of head coach Tom Thibodeau has been instrumental in the team’s improvement. His leadership style screams “never satisfied” and demands a lot from players that, in years past, have played in a losing environment.
Julius Randle has also made a jump, leading his team in points, rebounds, and assists. His performances at the start of the season have put him on track for an All-Star selection. This consistent performance has brought a much needed leader to an otherwise inexperienced team.
Young players RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley, and Mitchell Robinson have shown promise in the first games of this season, performing at high levels in their respective positions. Most notably, Barrett has shown flashes of greatness in closing tight games and defending at a high level. The former second pick has potential to improve and make himself a serious asset in years to come.
While the Knicks likely will not make a Cinderella run to the top of the league any time soon, the turnaround of a seemingly never-ending dumpster fire has been a highlight of this season. Seeing if the Knicks build on this momentum and further excite an already hysterical fanbase will be a compelling storyline.