If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. That lesson certainly applied to the most recent NBA season.
After the league shut down in March following Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test, there were plenty of questions about how play could resume amid a global pandemic. The NBA eventually figured out how to safely construct a “bubble” environment in Florida, and the strangest season in basketball history was finally completed in October.
Now, players are back in the real world, but the 2020-21 campaign will be far from normal. The threat of COVID-19 still looms large. There will be more positive tests as the season progresses, and fans in many cities will not be able to attend games for quite some time. Throw in the other typical factors — injuries, load management, trades, coaching changes — and it’s not hard to see why projecting how the season will play out is no easy task.
So what should hoopheads expect? Here are Sporting News’ predictions for the 2020-21 NBA season, including full standings for the Eastern and Western conferences.
MORE: NBA rest rules for the 2020-21 season, explained
NBA predictions 2020-21
Eastern Conference playoff teams
1. Milwaukee Bucks
2. Boston Celtics
3. Brooklyn Nets
4. Miami Heat
5. Philadelphia 76ers
6. Toronto Raptors
7. Indiana Pacers*
8. Atlanta Hawks*
9. Washington Wizards*
10. Orlando Magic*
— Milwaukee no longer has to worry about Giannis Antetokounmpo becoming a free agent, so winning a championship is the main focus. While the Bucks did lose a little depth this offseason, that should force Mike Budenholzer to put his best players on the floor for longer stretches. (What a concept!) Let’s give them the top seed in the East for the third consecutive season.
— All the teams in the No. 2-No. 6 range could make real playoff runs if things break right for them. The Celtics (Gordon Hayward) and Raptors (Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka) both lost significant pieces in free agency, but they bring back strong cores. The Nets and Sixers will need time to gel. Still, the talent is there. Oh, and the Heat remain a threat after an incredible “bubble” run. This should be intense.
— The Pacers bring back every key player from last season. They should at least reach the play-in round and possibly sneak into the top six. The Hawks are firmly in the playoff conversation after transforming the roster around Trae Young. Defense will be an issue, but Atlanta should rack up a ton of points.
— Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook give the Wizards two All-NBA-type players. That’s enough to land them in this tier. After two consecutive first-round exits, will the Magic consider a teardown at some point? Or will Steve Clifford’s squad just … do what it always does?
Eastern Conference lottery teams
11. Chicago Bulls
12. Charlotte Hornets
13. Detroit Pistons
14. Cleveland Cavaliers
15. New York Knicks
— It’s a big season for the Wendell Carter Jr.-Lauri Markkanen frontcourt. They both need to take steps forward under new coach Billy Donovan if the Bulls want to be more than a young, occasionally exciting team.
— Gordon Hayward should elevate the Hornets out of the basement and close to the play-in round if — and it’s a major if — he can stay healthy. Look out for sneaky-fun LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham stretches on League Pass.
— Ah, the bottom three. These teams are in player development mode, so it’s unreasonable to anticipate many victories. (Knicks fans, your team didn’t hand out a terrible contract this year. That’s progress!)
Western Conference playoff teams
1. Los Angeles Lakers
2. Denver Nuggets
3. Los Angeles Clippers
4. Dallas Mavericks
5. Utah Jazz
6. Portland Trail Blazers
7. Phoenix Suns*
8. Golden State Warriors*
9. New Orleans Pelicans*
10. Memphis Grizzlies*
— The champs stay on top. After winning the 2020 NBA title, Los Angeles made offseason upgrades and signed both Anthony Davis and LeBron James to new deals. The Lakers have a 33 percent chance of reaching the 2021 NBA Finals and a 21 percent chance of winning back-to-back titles, according to FiveThirtyEight’s season preseason forecast. They are rightly considered the championship favorites.
— LA’s other team is the biggest challenger to the throne, but the bet here is that the Nuggets will finish ahead of the Clippers as Tyronn Lue experiments with different strategies ahead of the postseason. Luka Doncic’s individual brilliance is enough to push the Mavericks into the top four.
— Portland and Utah should keep their respective playoff streaks alive, but the play-in teams right below them could crash the top-six party. If Chris Paul can come close to replicating his Thunder season, the Suns should finish above .500. Outside of Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, who do you trust on the Warriors?
— Bring on the Ja Morant and Zion Williamson highlights.
Western Conference lottery teams
11. Houston Rockets
12. Minnesota Timberwolves
13. San Antonio Spurs
14. Sacramento Kings
15. Oklahoma City Thunder
— Good luck trying to figure out what will happen in Houston. Even an unhappy James Harden is worth a bundle of wins, so the Rockets may hang around the fringes of the playoff picture as long as he is in a red and white uniform. Let’s assume he gets traded before the March deadline.
— The Kings and Timberwolves have potential, but the West is too competitive for the youngsters. Will the LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan rumors kick into high gear if San Antonio starts to sink in the standings?
— Sam Presti is going to somehow acquire a dozen more first-round picks over the next few months.
Eastern Conference finals picks
Nets over Bucks
— Unfortunately for Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, this isn’t the year they break through. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving drive the Nets to the 2021 NBA Finals with spectacular crunch-time scoring in multiple games. Antetokounmpo averages close to a triple-double for the series, but it’s not enough to take down Brooklyn’s dynamic duo.
Western Conference finals picks
Lakers over Clippers
— It’s the battle for LA that we all wanted to watch in 2020. The Lakers reign supreme in a six-game slugfest. In a matchup full of stars, the X-factor turns out to be the Clippers’ inability to create easy baskets against the Lakers’ stifling team defense.
NBA Finals prediction 2021
Lakers over Nets
— The fourth NBA Finals battle between Durant and James ends with LeBron capturing his fifth ring. But here’s the twist: Davis wins the Finals MVP award after dominating the Nets with an incredible combination of scoring, rebounding and defensive versatility.