NBA Hype List: Biggest NBA Storylines Entering 2020-21 Season

Kevin Durant #7 and Kyrie Irving #11 of the Brooklyn Nets look on with the referee during the first half against the Washington Wizards at Barclays Center on December 13, 2020 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

In 2010, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov purchased a controlling interest of the Brooklyn Nets, who were days removed from a 12-win season. If the NBA’s worst team didn’t win a championship within five years, Prokhorov vowed to get married. Three years later, Prokhorov celebrated what he believed was a step toward long-term bachelorhood as the Nets lunged at an overnight improvement with the acquisition of three former stars. 

The Nets didn’t win a championship by 2015, prompting Prokhorov to renege on his vow, nor did they win a championship in 2016 or 2017 before he sold the team prior to the 2017-18 season. And six years after the short-sighted lunge at improving a 49-win team, the Nets lunged again, though this time they did so with two current stars who make them one of the NBA Finals favorites in online sports betting.

The Nets won 101 total regular-season games during the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons, their highest two-year win total in three decades, and averaged 47 wins from 2001-07. With six straight playoff appearances, including back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals (2002 and 2003), they were one the epitome of stability.

The stability was followed by mediocrity and, later, downright misery, in winning 126 games over five seasons, which, after a strong 49-win season in 2012-13, prompted the reckless lunge at their first NBA championship. Their acquisition of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry in June 2013 led to a few playoff appearances but ultimately gutted the Nets of draft capital and shoved them back to irrelevancy.

“The arrogance in the room was that we were going to roll, we were going to win these next couple of years,” a former Nets staff member told the New York Daily News in 2017. “Maybe not the championship, but we were going to win the next couple of years and have sustainable success. We were going to keep signing free agents. We were always going to draft between 20 and 30. So if we’re going to swap with the Celtics, who gives a f***? That definitely was the thought.”

Six years later, the Nets lunged again, though this time they acquired two superstars without mortgaging everything. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in place for the foreseeable future, the hype train has returned to Brooklyn. 

More Playoff Contenders

Obviously, no one is hyped for the potential impact of COVID-19 on the 2020-21 NBA schedule, nor is anyone hyped for the schedule itself. Nonetheless, it’s the biggest storyline of the season and worthy of exhaustive analysis.

The league is facing a shortened and unconventional schedule that includes several back-to-back games against the same opponent in the same city and a play-in tournament that widens the playoff picture. Two days after the 72-game regular season ends on May 16, teams seeded seventh through 10th in each conference will compete in a play-in tournament for the remaining two playoff spots. The official playoffs will operate under the standard eight-team, four-round, best-of-seven format, but the play-in tournament will expand the pool of playoff contenders and provide more meaningful games late in the season.

Bucks’ Redemption

Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrates with George Hill #3 and Robin Lopez #42 the team's win over the Orlando Magic in an NBA basketball first round playoff game on August 20, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images)
 (Photo by Ashley Landis – Pool/Getty Images)

In winning 116 of 155 regular-season games over the last two years, the Milwaukee Bucks never had a stretch of four losses in five games. They’ve done it twice in the playoffs.

The Bucks’ surge from 15-win bottom-feeder in 2013-14 to 60-win championship contender in 2018-19 is undoubtedly remarkable. It’s also undoubtedly pathetic as they’ve imploded in two of their last three playoff series. The stench of the four-game skid in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals and offensive ineptitude in the 2020 Eastern Conference Semifinals will forever hang over the franchise’s best two-year run since the 1970s. However, redemption in 2021 can decrease the potency of that stench.

With Giannis Antetokounmpo returning to Milwaukee with a $228-million supermax deal, the Bucks remain the class of the Eastern Conference, sit near the top of NBA Finals odds, and carry loads of hype into a possible redemption season.

Luka’s Next Step

The Dallas Mavericks increased their win total in each of the last two seasons, which coincided with Luka Dončić’s arrival. It’s time for another step forward.

The former No. 3 pick was a household name long before he averaged 31 points in pushing the Los Angeles Clippers to six games in their first-round loss in last year’s playoff. But it was a 42-point explosion in Game 1 and 38-point effort in Game 6 that officially launched the Luka Dončić hype for 2020-21. 

“He’s one of those rare players that has not only an amazing imagination for the game but the skill and the ability and the wherewithal to pull it off,” Mavericks’ head coach Rick Carlisle told ESPN.

A fixture on preseason All-NBA lists, Luka enters his third season as a 21-year-old All-Star leading a team barreling toward long-term control of the Southwest Division.

Zion and Ja

There wasn’t a Zion in the 2020 NBA Draft class, nor was there a LeBron James, Anthony Davis, or Allen Iverson. Without an overwhelmingly hyped rookie entering the 2020-21 season, all eyes are on the two stars of the 2019 draft, Zion Williamson and Ja Morant.

With the shortened season and Williamson’s injury, the pair combined to play just 91 total regular-season games. But in those 91 games—24 for Williamson and 64 for Morant—the two rookies established themselves as two of the best players in the NBA and potentially two transcendent future Hall of Famers. 

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88.

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