what should we expect across the league over the next two-plus months? Let’s run through 10 fearless predictions before the postseason kicks off in late May.
Joel Embiid Will Win MVP
It’s hard to declare anyone but Embiid as the MVP favorite as we enter the second half of the season. Philadelphia’s star center is in the midst of one of the most dominant big-man seasons of the century, entering Wednesday averaging 30.2 points and 11.6 rebounds per game while shooting 52.1% from the field. Embiid is scoring 1.07 points per post-up possession. The Sixers sport a plus-11.1 net rating with him on the floor. Embiid is destroying every big in sight, sending shots at Myles Turner and Rudy Gobert in the process. He’s answered every criticism lobbed his way through Philadelphia’s first 36 games.
Will Embiid continue his dominance in the postseason? That remains an open question. Philadelphia’s late-game offense remains imperfect, and Toronto’s double-heavy defense against Embiid on Feb. 23 could be a precursor to the coverage he sees throughout the playoffs. And even if Embiid continues to steamroll every big in his path, is there any guarantee he bulldozes his way past the Big Three in Brooklyn? Not exactly.
We can address Embiid’s postseason outlook in greater depth later this spring. As for his MVP case, he should hold onto the award against an imperfect crop of contenders. The LeBron narrative train has slowed as Los Angeles struggles without Anthony Davis, and it doesn’t seem as though the Lakers will make it a priority to sprint to the No. 1 seed. Nikola Jokić’s team will hamper his case despite a truly brilliant season. James Harden is playing better than perhaps anyone in basketball at the moment, but it’s likely his case will be hurt by nine shameful games in Houston. This is Embiid's award to lose if the Sixers continue to cruise through the regular season. Dallas Will Take a Top-Five Seed in the Western Conference
It was a tumultuous start to the season for Luka Doncic and the Mavericks. Dallas’s third-year phenom began the season in a serious shooting slump after arriving out of shape, and the Mavericks were decimated by a slew of injuries and COVID-19 absences. What was considered an ascending team in the West quickly fell near the conference cellar. But recent weeks have featured the Dallas team we thought we were getting entering 2020–21.
Doncic & Co. entered the All-Star break with nine wins in their last 11 games, logging victories over the Nets, Celtics and Warriors. Doncic has been brilliant in that stretch—averaging 31.7 points and eight assists per game—and his supporting cast is beginning to round into form. Josh Richardson is now flashing his skills as a secondary playmaker. Jalen Brunson has been a revelation off the bench. The Mavericks enter Wednesday night just two games back of Portland in the loss column for the No. 5 seed. They are still a piece away from true contender status in the West; though with good health, we should see them snag a top-five seed by the end of the regular season.
• A Shameless Tankathon Will Ensue
The adjusted lottery odds have taken some of the incentive away for potential tanking teams, but the conditions seem right for a tankapalooza down the stretch in 2020–21. The upcoming draft class certainly adds to the tanking appeal, with a slam-dunk No. 1 pick in Cade Cunningham joining a quartet of potential franchise building blocks. And there’s additional tanking pressure stemming from a pair of ill-fated trades in recent years.
• The Rockets will cede their pick to the Thunder if it lands outside the top four thanks to the Russell Westbrook trade. Golden State gets Minnesota’s pick if it falls outside the top three (yikes). Add in a Detroit team with no incentive to win and scuffling squads in Cleveland and Orlando, and the pool of tankers could become five-or-six teams deep by April. Adam Silver and the league office won’t be happy, but such is life in the NBA. Even an expanded playoffs and altered lottery odds can’t stop the chase for the league’s next superstar.
• Andre Drummond Will Make a Legitimate Impact
Drummond has been a relative disappointment in the NBA considering his physical talents, but he still has plenty left in the tank in his ninth season. The 27-year-old center is still a quality rim runner, and his weak-side shot-blocking prowess is still relatively elite despite his bouts of inactivity. Ask Drummond to be a leading option, and your team is in trouble. But in the right situation, Drummond can still be a quality piece.
Perhaps the Cavaliers will find a trade partner for Drummond before the trade deadline, though considering his $28 million salary—and the dearth of draft picks among contenders—there’s a significant chance Drummond exits Cleveland via a buyout. Such a situation would be ideal for the two-time All-Star. He could dictate his destination as he finishes out his final year before free agency, potentially picking up a ring on the way.
The Lakers have been reported as a likely landing spot if Drummond hits the buyout market, and it’s not hard to see Drummond thriving alongside LeBron James & Co. in the postseason. Los Angeles resurrected Dwight Howard’s career last season. Drummond could fill a similar role as a rim-runner and paint protector, with likely better results than the former Magic star. Should any team shell out big money for Drummond in the offseason? Not in the slightest. But snagging Drummond for the season’s final push could pay major dividends.
• Devin Booker Will Have a 60-Point Game
The deluge of misguided criticism that previously surrounded Devin Booker has finally subsided as the first-time All-Star turns in a stellar offensive season. Booker is averaging 24.9 points per game on 50/36/84 shooting splits in 2020–21, and paired with Chris Paul, Phoenix sits as a fringe Finals contender in a stacked Western Conference. Booker continues to grow as a pick-and-roll initiator, and he's long been a lethal spot-up shooter. He’s an elite difficult shotmaker, often bailing out the Suns late in the shot clock. A lightened playmaking load has allowed Booker to shine. Phoenix’s decision to trade for Chris Paul looks better by the month.
It’s a bit premature to deem Booker a future All-NBA candidate given the depth at guard across the league. But on a given night perhaps no player is more equipped to go on an extended scoring binge. Booker poured in 70 points—albeit in dubious fashion—against the Celtics in 2017. He’s logged nine 40-point games since 2019. I’m willing to bet we see at least one scoring outburst from Booker this season as Phoenix continues its franchise revival.
• James Harden Will Cruise to the Assist Title
This isn’t necessarily the boldest prediction considering Harden currently leads the league in assists, but I’d be remiss not to detail Harden’s brilliance in Brooklyn thus far. A steady diet of pick-and-roll has brought out the best in the former MVP, allowing him to dice up defenses with greater ease compared to the isolation binges that consumed his final seasons in Houston. An influx of talent around Harden has led to a jarring jump in efficiency.
Harden is shooting 52.4% on drives to the rim in 2020–21. He’s made 45.2% of his spot-up threes. Brooklyn is doing a pretty impressive 2017–18 Rockets impression since acquiring Harden, with DeAndre Jordan and Kyrie Irving serving as facsimiles to Clint Capela and Chris Paul. A lightened scoring load for Harden has allowed him to play some of the best basketball of his career, and the Nets now exit the All-Star break as perhaps the championship favorites. The incessant Harden criticism over the last half-decade has always been (at least) a touch misguided. He could finally get his validation as an all-time great this summer.
• The Wizards Will Earn a Play-in Spot
It would be charitable to say Washington struggled to start 2020–21. The Wizards began the season losing 12 of their first 15 games, sporting a minus-5.3 net rating through Jan. 29. The Bradley Beal trade rumors swirled with a flurry. Scott Brooks’s job security was called into question. But perhaps the last three-plus weeks have featured a precursor to what we’ll see from Washington for the rest of the season.
The Wizards entered the All-Star break with eight wins in their last 11 contests, sporting a respectable plus-2.4 net rating. Davis Bertans is showing signs of life after a dismal start. Rui Hachimura continues to show flashes of his impressive offensive skill set. Perhaps the biggest difference has come from Russell Westbrook, whose improved shot selection (just 35 threes attempted in his last 12 games) has led to a positive net rating since Feb. 10. Beal remains a true All-NBA presence. The surrounding pieces are respectable. It’s not out of the question for Washington to leap past two of Atlanta, Indiana and Chicago before the end of the regular season.
• The Blake Griffin Experiment Will Work
Blake Griffin’s career demise has been well documented in recent weeks. The former Lob City star hasn’t dunked in a game since December 2019. He’s shooting just 36.5% from the field and 31.5% from three this season, and he hasn’t sported a positive net rating since 2018–19. Brooklyn’s addition of Griffin is more of a flier than a championship-altering move.
Perhaps Griffin is nowhere close to his Los Angeles (or early Detroit) heights, though there should still be a modicum of optimism regarding his potential with Brooklyn. He’ll likely slot in as a backup five, adding some scoring punch off the bench. Griffin will get to run pick-and-rolls to his heart’s content alongside Harden and Irving. He should get a flood of open threes. I’m not making Griffin out to be some sort of game-changer in the East, but he should become a valuable piece nonetheless. We assumed Griffin’s title window ended long ago. But circumstances have given him a second chance. Let’s hope Griffin makes the most of it.
• The Knicks Will Advance Past the Play-in Tournament We entered peak irrational-Knicks-fan territory on Feb. 28 after New York climbed to .500 with a win over the Pacers. And it’s time to feed into the hysteria. Perhaps holding onto the No. 5 seed is a bit of an impossible dream, but it’s not as though the Knicks will face any sort of juggernaut in the play-in tournament. Would Toronto, Charlotte or Indiana be heavy favorites over New York in a short series? Do we trust the Bulls, Hawks or Wizards? Tom Thibodeau led the Timberwolves to a playoffs with a must-win victory over the Nuggets in the 2018 regular-season finale. Expect a similar result if New York falls into the play-in tournament in May, published by - The Beyond News (Sports)