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The wait is almost over. After the most improbable season in league history, the NBA is ready to tip off again not long after the 2020 Draft - which threw up some surprises against the betting markets - and a fairly brief free agency period.
The coronavirus wreaked havoc back in March, leading to a three-month suspension of the 2019-20 season. It’s eagerly awaited return became a reality in the summer, thanks to the league’s Orlando, Florida bubble, which also allowed for a full post-season. In the end, the LA Lakers, led by King James, won out over the Miami Heat to claim the Larry O’Brien trophy.
But as any sports fan knows, last season means nothing once a new season starts.
The Cloudbet Blog takes this opportunity to preview what may lie ahead in 2021.
December 22 is premiere night for the regular season, with the red carpet being rolled out for what should be two highly entertaining games. On the West coast, defending champs the Lakers host the Clippers, a rivalry that will further benefit from Montrezl Harrell’s switch in the off-season; while on the East coast it’s safe to say all eyes will be on Kevin Durant’s long-awaited return, stepping out for the first time with the Brooklyn Nets against his former Golden State Warriors.
Western Conference - A Lakers dynasty in the making
Champs get stronger
If last season made just one thing clear, it’s that the Lakers are back for good - and ominously, they’ve had probably the best off-season in the league, making all the right moves to improve in all positions over last year.
First of all, they re-signed Anthony Davis to a five-year, $190 million contract, a move that confirms that nothing less than a repeat this year is acceptable.
Trading Dennis Schroder from the Oklahoma City Thunder, while adding depth to the Center position through free agents Marc Gasol and reigning Sixth Man Montrezl Harrell has stacked the roster even further. Wesley Matthews taking Danny Green’s spot is the last piece of the puzzle.
Locking Davis in so that he spends all his prime years in LA should carry the Lakers forward even when James calls it a day… until then, they remain the team to beat in 2021 and are deservedly the No.1 title favourites.
Cloudbet is offering odds of 2.88/+188 on the Lakers lifting the title and 1.85/-177 to take the Western Conference.
Davis is the current favourite for Defensive Player of the Year (regular season) and LeBron is currently third-favourite for the regular season MVP.
Clippers to contend
The Doc Rivers era has come to an end after seven years, the 59-year-old legend heading across the country to the Philadelphia 76ers. Taking over, Tyronn Lue - last year’s assistant coach and one-time hero in Cleveland.
The hole in Center created by Harrell’s departure has been filled with Serge Ibaka - reuniting one of the key players around star forward Kawhi Leonard when they lifted the title together at the Toronto Raptors in 2019.
The Clips will be looking for Ibaka’s defensive game to better contain players like Anthony Davis and the Nugget’s Nikola Jokic more effectively, especially in the post-season. The extension of Paul George’s contract until 2025 should also allow the team to quickly move on from their huge summer letdown, giving up a 3-1 series lead in the Western semifinals against the Denver Nuggets - and competing with the Lakers for the #1 seed.
The Clips are currently at 8.18/+718 to take the title and you can get odds of 2.12/+112 that they end the regular season with a greater than 67% win percentage.
A nod to the Nuggets
While the hunt for the six remaining Western Conference playoff spots includes several teams in the mix-up, one looks to stand out from that group. The Denver Nuggets (20.9/+1,996) seem to be a few steps (or years) away from going all the way. They have a great young core at their disposal, highlighted by the special Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray (mostly on fire during the 2020 playoffs) and Michael Porter Jr. (whose flashes shown in the bubble made sure that the wait was totally worth it), alongside tough role players like Monte Morris, Will Barton and veteran Paul Millsap, under the guidance of an amazing head coach in Mike Malone. The Nuggets have built on strong foundations and will be a force to be reckoned for the foreseeable future.
Eastern Conference - Up for grabs, but the Bucks are hungry
In the Eastern Conference, things look a bit more fluid.
The Milwaukee Bucks seem to have found a way of killing it during the regular season - and played some great basketball before the March shutdown - but still lack the knack of transforming these home-court advantages into deeper post-season quests for glory.
Giannis Antetokounmpo joined the elite company of only Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon by winning both MVP (his second in a row) and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season last year. The Greek Freak looks hungry as ever to make the leap into the finals.
The most notable move made by the front office saw Jrue Holiday join from the New Orleans Pelicans in the off-season, while the waiting game around Giannis’ is over - on Wednesday he signed the full five-year, $228 million supermax contract. He’s committed to Milwaukee and another season going all-in looks a no brainer.
With odds of 5.40 (+440) Giannis is currently second behind the Mavs’ Luka Doncic (4.43/343) to win regular season MVP honours.
Milwaukee’s odds of taking the title this year are currently 6.36/+536.
It was the Miami Heat (23.0/+2,201) that knocked Milwaukee out in the bubble, both in basketball and mental terms. The Bucks had no answer for Coach Spoelstra’s physical and tactical approach, led by alpha dogs Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo (who recently signed a max extension, establishing himself as a franchise cornerstone). Butler’s unquestionable fighter mentality and work ethic is paired by a unique two-way talent. Bam was dominant in the paint while young sharpshooters Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson set the tone for a balanced offence that integrates prospects every year and sets the bar high for 2021. Pat Riley should never be left out of the Executive of the Year conversation.
This season’s Brooklyn Nets (7.55/+655) are perhaps the most intriguing entity in the East. The arrival of Steve Nash as head coach was the story of the off-season, with no significant roster transactions reported. The hiring of the former Suns two-time MVP has been met with some skepticism though, mainly due to his lack of experience in the position. No doubt both fans and pundits will be watching closely.
On the floor, the return of Kevin Durant (10.5/+959 for regular season MVP) and Kyrie Irving (92.9/+9192 for the same) at full strength automatically flips the switch on the Nets to contender status, while Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert should again play integral roles having had their best professional seasons in 2020.
And if that weren’t enough, the rumour mill spinning around a James Harden trade seems to have picked up speed recently.
Betting odds suggest a playoff run is a surety, but you can get 9.4/+824 that they slip.
Teams to watch
The Atlanta Hawks (82.8/+8,180) entered the off-season with the second-largest cap space in the league, as well as the No. 6 pick in the draft. Having already drafted several lottery picks in recent years (including All-Star guard Trae Young in 2018), the Hawks had more than enough resources to spend both through trades and free agency. They first traded for Swiss center Clint Capela from the Houston Rockets (38.3/+3732), where they found a big man to give them low-post presence. Big free agent signings in Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic (a priority target for the Milwaukee Bucks that could not land him) are ready to improve last season’s worst three-point percentage team, joining a youthful, high energy, core led by Young and forward/center John Collins. Atlanta’s full-on high-paced gameplay fits these Europeans’ playing style and the Hawks should be in for a leap this season, competing for post-season action.
The Phoenix Suns (39.3/+3,835) almost made the impossible possible in the bubble; after going undefeated 8-0 during the seeding games, they were tied with the Portland Trail Blazers (44.3/+4,339) and Memphis Grizzlies (123/+12,268) for the 8th seed, but the tie-breakers ruled them out of the play-in tournament. Monty Williams’ team turned heads with their performances in Disney World and he’ll look to build on that momentum by pushing for post-season action for the first time since 2010 - one of the league’s longest active playoff droughts.
Devin Booker is on All-Star level, playing at the top of his game right now, and while he’s improved as a playmaker, future Hall of Famer Chris Paul was brought in from the Oklahoma City Thunder (256/+25,556) to focus more on scoring and bring some long-awaited on-court experience. Paul joins a squad lacking in win-now mentality but with huge potential; 2018 first overall pick DeAndre Ayton was greatly missed last season - suspended for 25 games for an anti-drug policy violation - and should see his game develop with CP3 creating space and shots for him. The Suns could find themselves occupying a seeded top-8 spot early on.
New kids on the block - the Draft class
Scout reports for his year’s Draft class indicated one thing early on - that a clear, undeniable No.1 pick wasn’t obvious for 2020. This incentivised teams with the top picks to consider trading down the board, although in the end this didn’t materialise. Pre-season games are always great opportunities for these young professionals to showcase their potential, especially this year as there was no Summer League.
The Minnesota Timberwolves (159/+15,845) won the lottery for the second time since 2015 (when Karl-Anthony Towns was taken first overall) and drafted guard/forward Anthony Edwards from the University of Georgia.
While Edwards has not received previous top-pick hype, he is one of the most NBA-ready prospects in this year’s class. While his great athleticism and slashing abilities should win him a starting spot at the perimeter, he has to show some efficiency in his offensive game given Minnesota’s already sufficient scoring options (Towns, Russell, Rubio), while at the same time being more alert defensively to win himself more minutes early on.
While a number of bettors expected the youngest Ball brother, LaMelo, to go first, in the end he went third. Ball’s decision to skip college and play overseas instead (in Lithuania and Australia), created some buzz two years ago. Probably the most skilled passer and ball handler of this draft class, the Charlotte Hornets (256/+25,556) saw in Ball the point guard to build on for the future. He should immediately provide top-10 highlights night in and night out with his flashy passes, court vision and play calling. His status could move to All-Star sooner than some think.
Maybe it’s no surprise he’s favoured for the Rookie of the Year.
Another point guard-need was filled at seventh, with the Detroit Pistons’ (358/+35,777) selection of Killian Hayes. After the Reggie Jackson experiment failed in Motor Town, the team was found lacking in talent in the position and are looking to rebuild. A gifted shot creator and skilled shooter, Hayes will be given the keys to the offense from the off, and in 2011 MVP Derrick Rose he finds not only an amazing backcourt partner but also a spirited mentor with a playing style to emulate. His experience last season in the German League should make the Frenchman stand out as a player mature and experienced beyond his only-19 years.
It’s been nine months since fans were evacuated from the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, minutes before the Thunder vs Jazz game was about to start. In response to the league’s first positive Covid cases - Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell - the NBA had to act fast. While the initial idea was to end fan attendance, events overtook best laid plans and with more positive tests coming through, the regular season was suspended indefinitely.
The NBA’s solution - the creation of the Disney World bubble - was, in all fairness, an enormous undertaking and an undeniable success.
Building on that experience, the league has strict protocols and a slightly rejigged playing schedule in place this season, which will no doubt have an effect on teams and how they go about their business.
Perhaps the biggest change for players, aside from the relative isolation, will be the road-trip restrictions and playing matches back to back while visiting. The Cloudbet Blog has delved more extensively into this and written about how the NBA has led the way in the Covid challenge.
Let’s hope we don't have to see the return of any kind of bubble environment, but the Lakers emerged from the last one victorious, with a 17th Championship title in the bag and Finals MVP No. 4 for James.
Rest assured this year they’re looking for Number 18, which would edge them out in front of the Celtics as the all-time winningest franchise in NBA history.
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