Jaxson Hayes will become a household name, the Utah Jazz are criminally underrated, and the Los Angeles Lakers will win another NBA championship.
Weeks removed from the most unconventional season ever, the NBA returns for a 72-game season that starts with LeBron James and the Lakers as heavy favorites in NBA championship odds, zero LeBron- or Zion-like must-watch rookies, and several coaches potentially on the hot seat.
Here are 20 NBA predictions for what should be a wild and unpredictable 2020-21 season:
Prediction: Los Angeles Lakers
There’s no reason to question the Lakers’ status as favorites to win their 18th championship. The Milwaukee Bucks improved with the Jrue Holiday acquisition, but last year’s playoff debacle (and the 2019 collapse) was too concerning to push them above the Lakers. Same goes for the Clippers and other potential contenders.
Rookie of the Year
Prediction: LaMelo Ball
In a draft without a clear-cut star, LaMelo Ball fell into the lap of a Charlotte Hornets team without a clear-cut star. Ball will share minutes in a developing backcourt but will have plenty of opportunities to stuff the stat sheet.
Coach of the Year
Prediction: Rick Carlisle
Mike Malone is the tempting pick because the Denver Nuggets are primed for another step forward this season. However, his recent tallies in Coach of the Year voting suggest an NBA Finals run is necessary to win his first-ever award. That’s too big of a leap in a loaded West, making Rick Carlisle the pick. Entering his 20th season as a head coach (13th with the Mavericks), Carlisle has only one Coach of the Year award (2002).
First Coach Fired
Prediction: Scott Brooks
The Russell Westbrook-John Wall swap makes the Washington Wizards better immediately. They’ll comfortably eclipse last year’s win total (25), but without a defensive overhaul, they won’t challenge for a favorable playoff seed and won’t meet the expectations of a team with two stars.
Prediction: Luka Dončić
Giannis Antetokounmpo won’t join Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Larry Bird as the only players in NBA history with three consecutive MVP awards. Jrue Holiday makes the Bucks a better team, but the 12th-year guard will enable a voter perception that, fair or not, hurts Giannis’ case. And with Anthony Davis and LeBron James splitting too many votes, Luka Dončić is the MVP.
Jamal Murray’s MVP Finish
Twelve different players received at least one MVP vote last year. Jamal Murray wasn’t among them, though his teammate, Nikola Jokić was, finishing ninth with 18 points. Jokić will earn MVP votes again in 2021 but it’ll be fewer than Murray, whose next-level season will put him behind only seven players.
Most Technical Fouls
Prediction: Russell Westbrook
Marcus Morris and Russell Westbrook had 16 technical fouls apiece last year, tied for the most in the NBA. Westbrook won’t share the honor this year as he and the Washington Wizards fail to meet expectations in year one of a surprising marriage.
Biggest Sophomore Leap
Prediction: Jaxson Hayes
The eighth pick in the 2019 draft, Jaxson Hayes, should be a great fit in Stan Van Gundy’s pick-and-roll-heavy system. Despite playing an average of just 17 minutes across 64 games, Hayes ranked 37th in the NBA with 117 possessions as a roll man, during which he averaged 1.325 points per possession (83rd percentile).
Best Bad Team
Prediction: Charlotte Hornets
“They should beat them, but…”
The Charlotte Hornets, ranked No. 21 in the BetMGM Preseason Power Rankings, are the “them” team this year. They’re the star-less team who crashes the offensive boards, doesn’t give free points at the line, and often forces teams to settle for perimeter shots. They weren’t good last year and won’t be good this year but with Devonte Graham, LaMelo Ball, and several versatile players, the Hornets aren’t that bad.
Worst Good Team
Prediction: Portland Trail Blazers
If Jusuf Nurkic stays healthy and Damian Lillard’s supporting cast does anything, the Trail Blazers will be flat-out good and nowhere near this unfortunate designation. Those “ifs” are too big and will limit the potential of another frustratingly mediocre Blazers’ team.
Largest Win Increase
Prediction: Golden State Warriors
The Warriors would have avoided tying the 2010-11 Cavaliers for the biggest win decline in NBA history (42) if their season wasn’t canceled after 65 games and a 15-50 record (after winning 57 games in 2018-19). They won’t follow it up by tying the biggest win increase ever (42 wins, 2007-08 Boston Celtics), but even without Klay Thompson, they will have the biggest increase of any team this year.
Largest Win Decline
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder
Bravo to the Thunder for aggressively committing to a rebuild. That aggressiveness comes with a price in the immediate future: Plummeting from 44 wins to somewhere in the ballpark of 23-25 wins, narrowly edging the Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets for largest win decline.
Prediction: New York Knicks
Playing in arguably the deepest division in the league, the New York Knicks will struggle to win 15 games in a 72-game season.
Prediction: James Harden
Only if James Harden remains in Houston.
If dealt during the season, James Harden won’t win a scoring title. While he won’t simply inherit Russell Westbrook’s 22 field-goal attempts per game, he will inherit more opportunities and should lead the league in attempts.
Prediction: Los Angeles Clippers
Of the 11 active teams without an NBA championship, the Clippers have the best chance of winning their first in 2021. They have four Western Conference semifinals appearances in the last nine years but have never reached the conference finals or NBA Finals. It’ll be a tough hill to climb, but the Clippers have a better chance than the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, and the other teams without a title.
Best Undrafted Rookie
Prediction: Devon Dotson
Killie Tillie could provide a mid- or late-season spark of versatility for the Memphis Grizzlies but let’s reach for Devon Dotson. Like Tillie, Dotson has been dealing with a preseason injury that could keep him sidelined for several games. Even after returning, the former Kansas star will sit behind Coby White, but he’s a better defender and could be a great fit for Billy Donovan.
Best New Head Coach
Prediction: Steve Nash
There are four new head coaches this year, all of whom are also first-time head coaches: Mark Daigneault (Thunder), Nate Bjorkgren (Pacers), Steve Nash (Nets), and Stephen Silas (Rockets). All but Nash were NBA assistants last year, but it’ll be Nash who has the most impressive season.
Most Overrated Team
Prediction: Brooklyn Nets
Steve Nash will have the most impressive season of any first-year head coach but that doesn’t mean he’ll meet extraordinary preseason NBA odds expectations in online sports betting. The Nets will comfortably top last year’s win total (35) with a healthy Kevin Durant and sharp-shooting Joe Harris returning to Kyrie Irving’s backcourt. However, depth and defense concerns won’t be solved in Nash’s first year.
Most Underrated Team
Prediction: Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz have a real chance to challenge the Los Angeles Clippers as the second-best team in the Western Conference. If Mike Conley actually turns the corner after an ugly arrival in Utah, Donovan Mitchell remains a superstar, and Bojan Bogdanović continues to be a matchup problem for most teams, the Jazz are primed for a deep playoff run.
Average Scoring Margin
Prediction: Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks led the NBA in average scoring margin in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. And it wasn’t close either year: Their 8.9-point margin in 2018-19 was three full points higher than the Toronto Raptors, and their nine-point margin in 2019-20 was 2.9 points higher than the Los Angeles Clippers. They’ll make it three straight years.
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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.