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The 2020-21 NBA Entrance Survey

Where will James Harden land? Who presents the biggest threat to the Lakers? And which teams and players are we most excited to watch? We answer the biggest questions heading into an unprecedented regular season.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Whether you (or the players) are ready or not, the 2020-21 NBA regular season is here. LeBron James and the Lakers enter the season the unanimous favorite (at least according to our staff), but there’s a host of compelling story lines around the league as it enters a unique 72-game season. Here are the six biggest questions before Tuesday’s opening night.

Which team are you most excited to watch in 2020-21?

Dan Devine: Nets. The mainstream basic side of my brain likes Brooklyn, because Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are two of the most compulsively watchable basketball players on the planet. My League Pass herb side prefers Memphis. Ja Morant looked incredible this preseason. Gentleman masher Jonas Valanciunas remains a slept-on delight. And no team in the league has a deeper collection of intriguing 25-and-under talent.

Logan Murdock: Suns. Phoenix is consistently at the top of my mind. The thought of Devin Booker coming into his own alongside Deandre Ayton and under the tutelage of Chris Paul makes this a top-tier League Pass team. I also love the idea of Paul being the consummate OG tasked with taking an unproven young nucleus to the next level. I don’t think the Suns will finish higher than a sixth seed (watch me be wrong), but they’ll scare a lot of folks.

Paolo Uggetti: Warriors. After watching LeBron and Anthony Davis bully their way to a title, I’m feeling nostalgic for 3-pointers. But not just any 3-pointers—Steph Curry “pulling up on the fast break from 30 feet” 3-pointers. The Warriors are far from a perfect team, in fact, they’ll arguably be fighting to make the playoffs after the Klay Thompson injury, but I don’t care. As long as Steph is playing basketball, I will want to watch Golden State.

Rob Mahoney: Nets. The conversation around the team might prove exhausting, but as a basketball spectacle, the Nets are undeniable. Kevin Durant looks as free and as explosive on the court as anyone could hope. His costar, Kyrie Irving, is a show unto himself—an immensely talented scorer whose brilliance with the ball is sometimes at odds with the procedural duties of being a point guard. How those two intersect with the established order and culture of the roster (now under the guidance of first-time head coach Steve Nash) is the kind of story that has everything a basketball fan could want.

Matt Dollinger: Sixers. Rather than break up its superstar duo, Philadelphia instead wisely decided to put another one around it, adding Daryl Morey and Doc Rivers this offseason. We’ve already seen Morey make several shrewd moves to give Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons a little more space this season. What will it look like with Doc pulling the levers? (Or maybe Morey says screw it and trades for James Harden. Either way, all eyes on Philly.)

Jonathan Tjarks: Nets. Kevin Durant was playing at as high a level as anyone in the history of the game when he tore his Achilles in the 2019 NBA playoffs. The biggest question this season is how good he will be after sitting out the past 18 months.

Justin Verrier: Wizards. The clock is ticking to convince Bradley Beal to stay long term, so the Wizards traded their moody, oft-injured, and expensive ball-dominant point guard for a cantankerous, expensive point guard with the second-highest usage rate in NBA history who is looking to get back to his old ways. And it just might work! Russell Westbrook was spirited in training camp, and looked like vintage Russ in his abbreviated preseason debut. If the Wiz can space the floor, and if Scott Brooks learns what staggering is, they might be pretty feisty at the bottom of the East playoff picture. And if they don’t, they’ll still be a chemistry powder keg playing in a lot of 130-point track meets.

Zach Kram: Hawks and Wizards. I’m cheating by picking two teams, but it’s hard to differentiate between the two Eastern Conference play-in hopefuls with dynamic new backcourts that might score 120 points per game but allow just as many. Give me Trae Young, with teammates who can actually handle the ball, rocketing around screens; give me Russell Westbrook rampaging through the lane with four shooters spacing the floor.

Which player will have the biggest breakout season?

Tjarks: OG Anunoby, Raptors. If we shouldn’t have written off the Raptors after losing Kawhi Leonard, then we definitely shouldn’t write them off after losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. Let’s not forget their best lineups in the playoffs were with Anunoby at the 5. He just signed with Klutch Sports, he’s playing for a new contract, and he’s finally playing at his natural position in the modern game. Sounds like a breakout season to me.

Mahoney: Deandre Ayton, Suns. This answer almost feels like cheating, but I’m just shameless enough to pick an already productive 22-year-old center who has a noticeably improved feel for the game and is set to bounce back from a suspension-shortened season. Ayton will also be alongside a Hall of Fame point guard for what should be one of the NBA’s most improved teams. Taken together, those elements suggest a standout year for the former no. 1 overall pick. Now it’s up to Ayton to connect the dots, and make good on all of the developmental and circumstantial indicators tilting his way.

Verrier: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder. After sharing the backcourt with an All-NBA recipient and the runner-up for Sixth Man of the Year in his first season in OKC, the only thing young SGA has to contend with this time is the burden of expectation. The rest of the next great Thunder team is still in high school, meaning the ball, the shots, and the responsibilities that come with being the face of the franchise fall squarely on the 22-year-old. Given the ample amount of opportunities at his disposal, Gilgeous-Alexander will almost certainly put up big numbers; the key to a massive leap, though, will be translating the smooth, cerebral parts of his game against an entire defense designed to stop him.

Murdock: Devin Booker, Suns. I’m being a bit redundant, but I think Booker is poised for a big season. He put up huge numbers in the bubble and led the Suns to a perfect record, and under Paul’s guidance, the Suns’ young star could take the next step as a franchise cornerstone. It’s one thing to put up numbers on a bad team, it’s another to do it on a playoff squad.

Devine: OG Anunoby, Raptors. OG’s per-possession production last season evoked the statistical profile of players ranging from very solid starters to superstars. That, plus the ice in his veins that produced the bubble’s coldest game-winner, makes for a pretty intriguing package. He should get more opportunities to make plays this season, and I’m bullish on him continuing his development. He’s unlikely to suddenly turn into Kawhi Leonard or mirror Pascal Siakam’s All-NBA leap, but more production in a higher-usage role feels reasonable. If he can manage that while continuing to provide All-Defensive Team–caliber perimeter work, OG will become the kind of rising two-way wing every team in the league is desperate to find.

Uggetti: Devin Booker, Suns. The 8-0 bubble leap Booker made is no fluke; it’s merely a sample of what he is set up to do this season. Booker is becoming more complete as a player, and now he’s squashing any doubts that he can anchor a winning team. Look at what Booker did with Ricky Rubio as his veteran guard. Now imagine what he’ll do with Chris Paul. In terms of big, young guards in the West, Luka Doncic may be all the hype, but Booker, who is still only 24, will get a lot of the spotlight this season.

Kram: Zion Williamson, Pelicans. Zion was the preseason scoring champ, averaging 28.5 points while playing 33.5 minutes per night, a crucial sign for a player with injury and conditioning concerns. We should probably pay attention to him.

Dollinger: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder. First, SGA made every team that passed on him look foolish by overdriving in a do-it-all rookie season in Los Angeles. Then he exceeded any and all expectations in his first season in Oklahoma City, leading the team in scoring and to a playoff berth. What does his third season hold in store now that Chris Paul, Steven Adams, and Danilo Gallinari have cleared out and the show is his? I’m guessing it’s something greater than we’re imagining.

Fill in the blank: James Harden will be traded to the ____.

Uggetti: Sixers. I’ve resigned myself to an inevitable split, even though I still believe Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid can work well together. The forces that keep trying to pull them apart are too strong. The Sixers hiring Daryl Morey was the final domino—it feels like it’s only a matter of time before Harden ends up Philly and Simmons in Houston. I’m preemptively pouring one out for yet another round of “the Process is Dead” headlines around the trade deadline.

Kram: Sixers. Philadelphia has been the obvious fit since the moment Daryl Morey took the job, and nothing in the past two months has changed that perception.

Verrier: Heat. Days after Miami’s surprise run to the Finals ended in a loss to the Lakers, Pat Riley reaffirmed his long-held belief that the key to success is to always be big-game hunting. “Jimmy is a whale … or an orca,” he said. “You need players like that in this league to advance far, and we’re glad to have him. And we’d like to have some more if we could find them.”

Is Riles really going to pass on adding an orca—one who, despite his current surplus of water weight, could give Miami the league’s best Big Three once again? As good as Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson are, maybe the takeaway is not that the Heat struck gold outside the draft’s top 10, but that their boot camp can bring out the best of overlooked prospects. (Related: Did everyone see KZ Okpala and Max Strus shoot a combined 12-for-18 from 3 the other day?)

Dollinger: Knicks. Harden might want to have a conversation with Rafael Stone before the Rockets’ GM deals him to the highest bidder. Harden doesn’t have a no-trade clause, nor does he have as much leverage as your average 24-hour news cycle would suggest. Tom Thibodeau seems to be jonesing for a superstar, and I can’t imagine Harden punting his prime to spite the biggest market in the league. Let’s call some bluffs!

Devine: Sixers. Because Daryl Morey doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’s easily convinced he wasn’t right.

Tjarks: No one. It wouldn’t surprise me if he doesn’t get moved until next year’s draft. The most valuable future assets in the NBA are the no. 1 and no. 2 picks in the 2021 draft. Houston might want to wait to find out who lucks into them before they move Harden.

Mahoney: Nets. Sometimes the trade machine is no match for Occam’s razor. Brooklyn was the first team reported to be in the Harden sweepstakes for a reason, or really, for two: Harden himself seems to have interest in playing there, and the Nets seem opportunistic enough to take a big swing at becoming the next superteam. Between Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, and a full run of future first-round picks, the Nets have enough to offer the Rockets to at least start a conversation. The question is whether they’re willing to give up enough picks and swaps to close the market for good.

Murdock: Nets. It will probably be the Sixers, but am I the only one hoping he goes to Brooklyn? The Beard reuniting with KD would make the Nets a bona fide title contender. It would probably take Houston getting Kyrie Irving in a trade to get anything close to equal value and it wouldn’t be a good look for Irving to be traded a year after signing with the team. Either way, I’d love to see the spectacle.

Name one player you want to see traded in 2020-21 and to where?

Verrier: Beal to the Sixers. If the Wiz want to rip off the Band-Aid now, they could jump-start a bidding war that would force teams like Philly and Denver to make conscious decisions about their prized young players, while throwing a wrench in the Harden market. If Washington backdoors Houston for Ben Simmons, do the Heat play hard ball? Does Caris LeVert start to look a lot more enticing? And does a team better suited for Beal (like Denver) throw caution to the wind and make a play for Harden in hopes that the talent could outweigh the fit and chemistry issues?

Kram: Blake Griffin to the Nuggets. This trade likely won’t happen, but I want it for two reasons. First, Griffin is just a season removed from making an All-NBA team and, if he’s healthy, could give the Nuggets the talent boost they need to really compete with the Lakers. Second, he and Nikola Jokic might be the two best passing big men in the whole NBA (among active players 6-foot-9 and taller, only Ben Simmons and LeBron James have higher career assists averages), and I want to see what kind of magic they can create with their powers combined.

Murdock: P.J. Tucker to the Warriors. If for no other reason than the man is going through it at the moment and I’d love to see him with Golden State. The man can drain 3s and even play center in a switch-heavy defense. The Warriors would love him and he’d escape a situation where he’s unhappy.

Dollinger: Celtics’ Trade Exception to Anyone. It’s time for Trader Danny to live up to that silly nickname and use the team’s massive trade exception from the Gordon Hayward deal. With Kemba Walker’s deal looming on the books, it makes sense to go the rental route and look for a one-year flyer like Andre Drummond or LaMarcus Aldridge. Neither player is likely to have much value on the open market, leaving Ainge in prime position to pounce before the deadline.

Devine: Blake Griffin to the Warriors. If he gets traded, it likely means he started the season healthy and productive, which would be wonderful to see after a lost 2019-20, and which would allow the Pistons to add draft capital around Jerami Grant, Killian Hayes, and the rest of Detroit’s oddly intriguing roster. Finding a good home is tricky; in the spirit of Westbrook-for-Wall, let’s swing another “our bad contract for yours” deal, send him to Golden State in something built around Andrew Wiggins, give Stephen Curry another playmaker to work with, and see if Blake and Draymond can play nice after years of unpleasantness.

Tjarks: Aaron Gordon to Anyone. To anywhere that will play him at the 4 and the 5 instead of the 3. That’s a move that has been a long, long time coming.

Uggetti: P.J. Tucker to a Contender. Once Harden is eventually dealt, we absolutely need Tucker to be packaged with him or moved to a title competitor. Tucker is one of the more underrated players in the league and his versatility would make him a huge asset to any contender looking to downsize in the playoffs. Long live the Tuckwagon lineup.

Mahoney: George Hill to the Sixers. Oklahoma City has become a way station for veterans. It’s only a matter of time before contenders call to ask about Hill, and there could be a pretty competitive market for a flexible veteran guard who fits most any lineup and style. Philadelphia would be the most exciting possibility, considering that Hill is perfectly suited to accommodate both a post threat like Joel Embiid and an unusual lead guard like Ben Simmons. A shooter, ball handler, and perimeter defender with real playoff experience checks all the boxes.

What’s one story line everyone is overlooking in 2020-21?

Devine: Will the official institution of the play-in tournament essentially end the concept of the playoff drought? As it stands, the only teams to have gone more than five seasons without making the playoffs are the Kings, Suns, and Knicks. I wouldn’t bet on New York or Sacramento cracking 10th place this season, but Phoenix should. If the Suns finish ninth or 10th, would we count their resultant play-in tournament games—games that will take place after the regular season—as a “postseason” appearance?

Maybe we want to eliminate, or at least mitigate, the ignominy of watching your favorite team fail to even get within sniffing distance of the playoffs for multiple presidential administrations. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all, and I am just a crackpot who has been in his house for too long. It does feel weird, though, to think that De’Aaron Fox leading the Kings to, say, 34 wins and the 10th seed would “end the longest postseason drought in the sport.” If everyone’s special, nobody is, you know?

Uggetii: Serge Ibaka alongside Kawhi. I know it’s low-hanging Twitter fruit to make fun of the Clippers, but I think they got better this offseason. Mainly because they added Serge Ibaka, who by all accounts, is the only other NBA player Kawhi has a public relationship with.

Kawhi even sort of recruited him:

Of course, the two won a title together in Toronto, and all I’m saying is that Ibaka’s presence may end up looking like the best offseason addition by the time the playoffs roll around.

Dollinger: There’s a 32-year-old out of Davidson I’m pretty excited to watch this season. He played in only five games last season, but if I’m reading this right, he’s a three-time champion and two-time MVP. Hmm, something to keep an eye on.

Murdock: COVID-19. It’s the biggest story line in the world and yet it still feels like it’s not getting enough attention. In the bubble, the league had the luxury of controlling the spread of the virus. Now, with travel involved and players free to leave the facility, the NBA is susceptible to more positive tests during the virus’s peak. The league has built up a lot of goodwill after the bubble, but it can all go away if they don’t meet this moment.

Mahoney: COVID-19. Each one of us could list it as our answer here and it still wouldn’t be enough acknowledgment of the fact that the NBA, after watching the mess of every other American sports league that has attempted play outside a bubble, is charging boldly forward with its own season. The motivation for starting the season is obvious, but if we’re all being honest with ourselves, there’s no real justification for large traveling parties to fly across the country several times a week, at risk to themselves and others, to play basketball.

Tjarks: The Pacers modernizing their offense under new coach Nate Bjorkgren. Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner are all between 24 and 28 years old. They are all two-way players and four of them can shoot 3s. That’s a good formula to exceed expectations.

Verrier: The Raptors are playing home games in Tampa Bay. If the empty arenas and medical masks along the sidelines don’t already signal how weird this regular season will be, just wait until the first national TV game for the Raptors, when the camera pans to the ceiling and you see their 2019 title banner hanging next to Vincent Lecavalier’s retired jersey.

Kram: It’s a stretch to say “everyone is overlooking” this idea, but I don’t think the average fan has yet internalized how important depth will be for this regular season. With a shortened offseason, a compressed schedule with more back-to-backs, and the remaining uncertainty about COVID-19 infections and missed games, teams’ benches may be tested like never before.

Everyone picked the Lakers to win the title. Who’s their biggest threat?

Mahoney: Clippers. I’d go ahead and get the 3-1 jokes out of your system now. The Clippers have a better playoff roster than they did last time around, when they were already one of the most talented teams in the league. Don’t confuse an embarrassing playoff exit for proof of some inherent flaw; the Clippers have work to do, clearly, but they are still every bit the kind of team that could challenge the Lakers and win it all.

Tjarks: Nets. The Lakers won on their defense last season. They won’t be able to stop the Nets, though, because it’s impossible to stop two three-level scorers like KD and Kyrie. It’s just a question of whether Brooklyn will be able to play enough D, and if it can upgrade that side of the ball before the trade deadline.

Verrier: Clippers. Maybe they’re broken … or maybe they’re just one Rachel Nichols “How the Clippers Finally Cleared the Air” sit-down away from being as good as they are on paper.

Murdock: Bucks. The easy answer here is the Lakers themselves. But the usual threats still linger, including Milwaukee, who retooled around the newly re-signed Greek Freak.

Devine: COVID-19.

Kram: Clippers. Don’t let the catastrophic collapse against Denver define its entire roster: This is still a group with elite talent, depth, and two-way bona fides, returning almost the whole cast that led the West in point differential last season. And no team is better suited to contend with LeBron in the playoffs than the one with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Dollinger: Clippers. My heart wants to pick the Bucks and get behind Giannis’s feel-good decision, but my brain says it’s the other Los Angeles team, with the better supporting cast, properly motivated superstars, and fresh voices on the bench.

Uggetti: Nets. Remove all the emotional baggage and sage-related incidents from Brooklyn’s stars and this question becomes very simple. The Lakers have the best duo in the West. The Nets could have the best duo in the East. Brooklyn’s ceiling is skyscraper high, but their floor is disastrously low, too. That kind of variance does not inspire confidence, but I’ll hold on to their overwhelming talent as long as I can.