20 NBA Predictions for the 2020-21 Season

Donovan Mitchell #45 reacts after teammate Mike Conley #10 of the Utah Jazz makes a three point basket against the Denver Nuggets during the third quarter in Game Four of the Western Conference First Round during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 23, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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:

NBA Champions

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.

MVP

Prediction: Luka Dončić

Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks reacts against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the second half during a preseason game at American Airlines Center on December 17, 2020 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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

Prediction: Eighth

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.

Worst Record

Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the New York Nicks draws up a play on a time out against the Detroit Pistons moves the ball up court against the New York Knicks in the second half of an NBA game at Little Caesars Arena on December 13, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)

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. 

Scoring Champion

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.

First-Time Champion

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.

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