The NBA season tips-off on 22 December, and the league is no longer confined to the bubble in Orlando.
The off-season formalities were played out with the draft sending the likes of Anthony Edwards to the Minnesota Timberwolves and LaMelo Ball to the Charlotte Hornets while free agency and trades have shaken up the league.
Ultimately, it is all about winning. With the new year almost upon us, who are the franchises in the mix to lift the NBA Championship in 2021?
The LA Lakers didn’t rest on their laurels after capturing their 17th championship – and first in a decade – with general manager Rob Pelinka replacing Atlanta-bound Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard, who signed with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Instead, the Lakers acquired shooter Wesley Matthews, veteran champion Marc Gasol and Dennis Schroder – who is an incredible addition – while also bringing in 2019-20 Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell from the Clippers, their city rivals.
LeBron James will occupy the playmaking role that he perfected last season, and he will use his legendary veteran savvy to integrate these new additions into the rotation and ensure they fit – and don’t mess with what the Lakers excelled at.
With Anthony Davis at the top of his game alongside title-winning pieces Kyle Kuzma, Markieff Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – who were all superb in their roles during the bubble – the Lakers will tip-off the new season as the firm favourites to win back-to-back championships in 2021.
While the Lakers made smart acquisitions, their city rivals may have improved by subtraction.
It’s a similar team that Doc Rivers couldn’t lead beyond the Western Conference Semi-Finals, and Tyronn Lue will be incredibly reliant on the partnership of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George that became far too one-sided in crucial moments.
With Harrell switching sides in LA, the Clippers brought in Serge Ibaka – a brilliant signing and fit for the franchise. Luke Kennard will assume the role left behind by Landry Shamet, which could work if Kennard is over his knee issues that limited his 2019-20 season.
The Clippers are relying on Lue to get the best out of Leonard and George, and the onus will very much be on the duo to deliver after an underwhelming finish to last season.
The Brooklyn Nets enter the campaign as perhaps the most interesting team in the NBA. With so many big personalities, it’s going to boom-or-bust for the franchise in 2020-21.
The Nets will be box office, and the return of their superstars fuels the belief that they can capture a first championship since 1976. The on-court talent of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are joined by a coaching staff that provides intrigue and excitement, headed by Steve Nash.
Nash, a two-time MVP with the Phoenix Suns, is tasked with ensuring that the Nets do not suffer chemistry issues within the roster, which is harder than it appears. Durant is coming off an Achilles injury and may not be the player he was, while role players like Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie could be unsettled as trade rumours refuse to go away.
Of course, there is also the problem of Irving. While he is a generational talent, the mercurial superstar has seen his career become plagued by off-court issues – often initiated by himself.
At the end of the day, the Nets have the best duo in the Eastern Conference and Nash, with staff that includes Mark D’Antoni and Amar’e Stoudemire, will be expected to turn Brooklyn into a contender immediately.
The Bucks come into the season with the boost of having secured the signature of back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
After finishing the last two seasons with the best record in the NBA, the Bucks and head coach Mike Budenholzer need to make progress in the playoffs, and they made smart moves this offseason. Jrue Holiday and D.J. Augustin are a big upgrade at point guard, while Bobby Portis adds paint-scoring and physicality that the second unit missed.
As long as the Bucks have Giannis, they are a threat. The reigning MVP forms a trio with Holiday and Kris Middleon that will be strong enough to keep Milwaukee in the mix.
The Boston Celtics usually tinker with their roster in the offseason but the team have found a formula that could bring success if they continue to develop.
In Orlando, head coach Brad Stevens used a line-up that showcased the offensive firepower of star player Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker while integrating defensive maverick Marcus Smart.
It’s a team that lacked size and depth – which could still hamper the Celtics in 2020-21 – but the additions of Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague make this roster a more well-rounded outfit than last year.
The development of their bench will arguably be as important as the progress of their starting five, with the likes of Carson Edwards, Romeo Langford and Grant Williams all key to the Celtics’ depth.
The Celtics have one of the strongest starting line-ups in the NBA, and the likes of Tatum and Brown are yet to enter their prime.
The Miami Heat surprised many en-route to the NBA Finals in Orlando, and their young players like Bam Adebayo, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro will only get better. The Eastern Conference champions added guard Avery Bradley over the offseason, who improves their guard rotation immensely.
The 2018-19 NBA champions, the Toronto Raptors, will certainly be in the mix once more. Pascal Siakam will hope to put his Orlando woes behind him and revert back to the star that formed pre-suspension, while Kyle Lowry is the most underrated point guard in the NBA. They also managed to keep hold of Fred VanVleet, who has developed into a genuine talent.
In the west, the Denver Nuggets may have the biggest chance to upset one of the big boys. Jamal Murray will look to continue his bubble form that saw him become the hottest young star in the NBA, and Nikola Jokic is a brilliant piece too. Pair those two with developing talent Michael Porter Jr., and the Nuggets have a genuine recipe for success.
The Dallas Mavericks are also set to be a problem, with Luka Doncic going into the campaign as the favourite for the MVP award. He forms a fearsome duo with fellow European Kristaps Porzingis, who hopes his injury issues are a thing of the past.
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