The 2019-20 NBA season went different than expected, heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The league returned in a bubble format to great success, with the Los Angeles Lakers ultimately defeating the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals. Just two months later, a new season is upon us. The offseason was short but rapid-fire, with the Houston Rockets and Washington Wizards swapping star point guards Russell Westbrook and John Wall, the Phoenix Suns acquiring Chris Paul, the defending champions re-tooling their roster, and a draft that brought Anthony Edwards, LaMelo Ball, and James Wiseman in to the league.

Over a slightly abridged 72-game season, the Lakers will look to defend their title against a slew of worthy contenders. In their own conference, sharing their own arena even, Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers remain a legitimate threat. The Lakers didn’t face the Clippers in last year’s playoffs, and the Clippers could theoretically go all he way by outdueling the Lakers in the postseason. The Dallas Mavericks, with rising star and MVP candidate Luka Doncic, as well as the Denver Nuggets also represent hungry teams ready to pounce if the two Los Angeles teams falter. Even Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors could be a wildcard team and darkhorse contender.

Over in the Eastern Conference, he Milwaukee Bucks dominate in he regular season, but just can’t seem to get it done in the playoffs. If Kevin Durant is anything like the player he used to be, the Brooklyn Nets will be a scary team and an instant threat to win the East. Otherwise, the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors, or defending Conference champion Miami Heat will all throw their name in the hat for the revolving door that is the Eastern Conference champion.

There’s plenty to watch for and plenty of good teams heading in to the 2020-21 season. Here are my predictions for the final standings, how the playoffs will shake out, and the eventual NBA Finals matchup.

Click here to see my 2019-20 NBA Predictions from last year. How did they hold up?

Eastern Conference

Video: Giannis Had A NSFW Message For Brooklyn Nets Player
Photo:  Stacy Revere/Getty Images
  1. Milwaukee Bucks (57-15)
  2. Brooklyn Nets (49-23)
  3. Miami Heat (46-26)
  4. Boston Celtics (44-28)
  5. Toronto Raptors (42-30)
  6. Philadelphia 76ers (41-31)
  7. Indiana Pacers (39-33)
  8. Washington Wizards (35-37)
  9. Atlanta Hawks (34-38)
  10. Charlotte Hornets (28-44)
  11. Orlando Magic (26-46)
  12. Chicago Bulls (25-47)
  13. Detroit Pistons (23-49)
  14. New York Knicks (20-52)
  15. Cleveland Cavaliers (16-56)

The Milwaukee Bucks have dominated in the regular season over the past two years, with the best record in the NBA during that span. After swapping out Eric Bledsoe for Jrue Holiday, the Bucks and two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo are set to run it back in the Eastern Conference.

Assuming a healthy Kevin Durant (doesn’t even have to be 100% of his former self, 75% or better will do), the Brooklyn Nets should be the next best team in the East. Durant and Irving would create instant offense, and would likely be able to beat most teams by overpowering them offensively.

After that, the third through sixth seeds are fairly close and could fall in any order. I have the reigning Eastern Conference NBA Finals representative, the Miami Heat, getting healthy and finishing with a solid third seed. The Boston Celtics will look to continue a string of regular season success under Brad Stevens, as will the Toronto Raptors who have been a perennial playoff contender with or without Kawhi Leonard. Likewise, the Philadelphia 76ers have been good for some time now, and could finish as high as third or even second in the East. But here, they fall to sixth in the conference.

With Victor Oladipo, the Indiana Pacers should make the playoffs again, but not much more. The de facto eighth seed would be the Orlando Magic, who made the playoffs last season. The media and fan favorite to make the jump to the postseason is probably Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks with a couple new pieces. But for me, swapping out John Wall for Russell Westbrook is enough to make the Washington Wizards my eighth seed. It won’t come without struggles, as I don’t even project a wining record for Washington, but Westbrook and Bradley Beal do make the playoffs in their first season together.

Western Conference

  1. Los Angeles Lakers (54-18)
  2. Los Angeles Clippers (51-21)
  3. Dallas Mavericks (47-25)
  4. Denver Nuggets (43-29)
  5. Utah Jazz (40-32)
  6. Houston Rockets (39-33)
  7. Golden State Warriors (38-34)
  8. Portland Trailblazers (37-35)
  9. New Orleans Pelicans (36-36)
  10. Phoenix Suns (35-37)
  11. Memphis Grizzlies (31-41)
  12. Oklahoma City Thunder (30-42)
  13. San Antonio Spurs (29-43)
  14. Sacramento Kings (25-47)
  15. Minnesota Timberwolves (20-52)

The Los Angeles Lakers will be the best team in the Western Conference, and really the NBA, in 2021. After winning the Western Conference’s top seed and dominating in the NBA’s postseason bubble, a re-tooled Lakers squad is set to do it again. I don’t have them finishing with the NBA’s best record, but that’s due to playing in a tougher conference. For instance, Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers will likely be breathing down their necks all season, and could even take some games from the Lakers in the regular season like they did last year.

The Dallas Mavericks have a high ceiling with the budding superstar Luka Doncic, and with Kristaps Porzingis available, the Mavericks could soar to new heights. The Denver Nuggets are a shoo-in for a high seed, and could easily outperfrom my fourth seed prediction.

After that, just five games separate the fifth and tenth seed in a crowded pack of good but not great teams. I have the Utah Jazz leading that pack with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert leading the charge, but as long as the Houston Rockets have James Harden, I wouldn’t count them out either.

The biggest wildcard, obviously, is the Golden State Warriors. Steph Curry will be back, but with no Kevin Durant and no Klay Thompson, there’s no telling how the season may play out. I’m putting enough faith in Curry to carry the Warriors to the playoffs in 2021. It was a shame to put the Portland Trailblazers eighth, as I really liked their move of adding Robert Covington, but again, they’re right there and could finish as high as fifth with just a couple more wins.

I would love to see the New Orleans Pelicans or Phoenix Suns break through in to the playoff picture, but the competition is too strong for it to happen now. Still, I would expect both teams to remain in the mix until the season’s end. Perhaps one of these two teams could earn the ninth seed and outplay the eighth seed in a play-in scenario.

Eastern Conference Playoffs

In the Eastern Conference, you could basically bet on one of two things: the Milwaukee Bucks or the field. For the past two seasons, the Bucks have put up the Eastern Conference and NBA’s best regular season record. Yet for two straight postseasons, they’ve been eliminated by the eventual Eastern Conference champion (Toronto Raptors in 2019, Miami Heat in 2020.) While it would be great to see Antetokounmpo get over the hump and reach the NBA Finals, I think Milwaukee sees the exact same fate for the third straight season: the best record in the NBA, but a playoff loss to the conference’s NBA Finals representative. I’m getting ahead of myself, but as you can see in the bracket, I do have the Boston Celtics advancing to the NBA Finals.

Before that, we have a lot of drama in the lower half of the bracket. The defending Eastern Conference champions, the Miami Heat, are certainly in the mix again in 2020-21. But here, I have them losing a tough playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers. These predictions project a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving come playoff time, and that will be a scary duo. Brooklyn grinds out a seven-game series win over Philadelphia, and then reach another decisive Game 7 against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals.

On paper, I’d love Durant and Irving’s chances in that game, but I’m not ready to push the Nets through to the Finals just yet. Instead, a well-rounded Celtics team finally breaks through after years of being just a step behind the league’s top teams.

Western Conference Playoffs

While I went with the higher seed in every matchup of the Western Conference Playoffs, that doesn’t mean there isn’t intrigue. If Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors sneak into the playoffs, they could certainly make noise by getting hot at the right time. I think the Los Angeles Clippers are too powerful of a team to overcome, but if Golden State did pull off an upset, things would get interesting.

The Dallas Mavericks have a high ceiling, but the Clippers are deeper are more well-rounded. Dallas forces a Game 7 in the Conference Semifinals, but the Clippers advance to the Western Conference Finals. After dispatching the Portland Trailblazers and Denver Nuggets with relative ease, the reloaded Los Angeles Lakers finally get a worthy opponent in Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and the Clippers. It could be the toughest series LeBron has played in Los Angeles yet, though I do have the Lakers avoiding a Game 7.

NBA Finals Matchup

Anthony Davis, LeBron James deliver as Lakers edge Celtics in spirited  rivalry game – Orange County Register
Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

For the second straight year, I’m predicting an NBA Finals matchup consisting of two classic rivals: the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. I was half right last season, as the Lakers did win the Championship, but the Celtics came up short in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

While I certainly don’t think this would be a sweep, the Lakers would be the clear favorite in this potential matchup. Boston has a great core, and the Finals trip alone would be valuable experience for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But James’ vast experience, with 10 NBA Finals appearances, and the Lakers superior roster would shine through at the end of the day.

I’m much more confident in my Lakers pick than Celtics pick of course. If James and the Lakers didn’t come out of the West, I would suspect it would be the Los Angeles Clippers that beat them. The only other teams I could realistically see representing the West are the Denver Nuggets and Dallas Mavericks, but even that’s a bit of a long shot.

In the East, as many as six teams could potentially reach the NBA Finals in 2021. The dominant Milwaukee Bucks as well as a Brooklyn Nets team with a healthy Kevin Durant are the most likely contenders, but the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and Toronto Raptors all have a say in the matter as well.

I’m sticking with the Bucks collapsing before the Finals, and once again choosing the Celtics as the next team up. The Lakers repeat as champions, downing Boston in six games.

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Header Photo Credit: Kim Clement via CBS Sports

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