2020-21 NBA preview: Antetokounmpo, Nets make for compelling — albeit squeezed — season

Detroit News

Rod Beard
 
| The Detroit News

Rod Beard of The Detroit News previews the NBA season with a look at the top players, championship contenders and more.

Top MVP candidates

►Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks: With a revamped roster, the two-time defending MVP could be going for a third. He’ll continue to be driven by his desire to seriously contend for a title — and his new super-max contract means that it’ll likely be in Milwaukee. Along with his outside shot, he’ll continue working on the small things to augment his game. The Bucks will go as he goes.

►Luka Doncic, Mavericks: The playoff appearance was big for Doncic and having a healthy roster could help in his development. The Mavs may not be one of the top contenders for the championship, but he’s in a position to put up numbers that rival some of the elite players in the competitive Western Conference. Even without a full roster, he’s done it, but if he stays healthy, he’ll be in line for a big season.

►Kevin Durant, Nets: He’s back, and he’s set for a season to watch. Durant already was one of the top two or three players, but all eyes will be on his move to Brooklyn and whether he can get back to the top of his game. If the preseason was any indication, it’ll be a short climb. When he’s on his game, he’s still unguardable, and still can be an exceptional defensive player.

Top rookies

►LaMelo Ball, Hornets: After a little bit of draft drama, the Hornets may have lucked their way into getting Ball with the No. 3 pick. With Devonte Graham and Terry Rozier, the Hornets don’t need him to start immediately, but with his size and talent level, he may just work his way into the starting lineup at some point. The focus will be on his shooting, but in most other areas, he’s already NBA-ready.

►James Wiseman, Warriors: For a bit, he was the consensus No. 1 pick, but the Warriors couldn’t let him go past No. 2. It’s a good roster fit to help restore them to their previous championship level, but not having Klay Thompson will hurt. If Wiseman can expand his game to the 3-point line, he’ll be a much better fit, with his potential to dominate on both ends of the court.

►Killian Hayes, Pistons: He’ll have an opportunity to play and grow in the starting lineup from the first game. With Blake Griffin, Jerami Grant a cast of veterans around him, he won’t have to put up ridiculous stats, and can develop his offensive game gradually. With his experience playing in Europe, he could have something of a head start compared to some of the other rookies.

Under-the-radar players

►Christian Wood, Rockets: After barely making the Pistons’ roster last season, Wood finished with a flurry and became one of their go-to options by the end of the year. He signed a three-year deal with the Rockets and his pairing with James Harden could be a thing of beauty to watch. Even if Harden ends up leaving, a wide-open offense and starters’ minutes will be a huge opportunity for Wood to shine.

►Donte DiVincenzo, Bucks: He’s developed nicely over the past couple of years as a role player, but DiVincenzo could find himself in a much bigger role with the Bucks, as they revamped the roster in an attempt to appease Giannis Antetokounmpo. They’ll be motivated and DiVincenzo will improve on his 9.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 34% on 3-pointers last season. It could be the boost the Bucks need to get over the top.

►Michael Porter, Jr.: He was on this list last year as well, but his postseason performance showed just the tip of the iceberg of what he’s capable of achieving. With some of the complementary players gone from the Nuggets’ rotation, Porter can step in immediately and take on a bigger scoring responsibility. He could turn out to be a gamble that pays off in a big way for Denver.

Teams to watch

►Brooklyn Nets: All eyes will be on the return of Kevin Durant and how he pairs with Kyrie Irving. It may take some time for the chemistry to build, but when it does, watch out. The Nets have the complementary players to make a real run in the Eastern Conference, with Caris LeVert (Michigan), Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris. Of course, it could all come crashing down if they decide to trade for James Harden, but they’re good enough without him.

►Phoenix Suns: Adding Chris Paul shows that they’re a legitimate contender in the West and the veteran presence that he brings to the core that includes Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges will be immense. They had a solid finish to the regular season but whether they can turn that into not only their first playoff appearance since 2010, but a nice run, will be the real thing to watch.  

►Los Angeles Lakers: In all likelihood, the Lakers won’t be as fun to watch in the regular season as they were last season. James and Anthony Davis are likely to take a significant number of rest days because of the quick restart to the season, looking to prepare themselves for the postseason. The Lakers may not have one of the top two seeds in the West, but it won’t matter — James and Davis might just be able to flip the switch when it’s playoff time.

Storylines to watch

►COVID times: Playing in the Orlando Bubble was one thing, but getting back to some level of normalcy with playing in home arenas will be intriguing. What happens if there are positive cases? Will the season shut down? The NFL, MLB and NCAA teetered on the edge when they had some cases, but the NBA seemed to have the antidote with their bubble. Commissioner Adam Silver said they’ve considered playing in regional bubbles, which could be another option.

►The play-in tournament: Taking a cue from the abbreviated season and continuation in the Orlando Bubble, the NBA is adding the No. 9 and No. 10 team in a play-in format that is similar to baseball’s wild-card. The more teams, the more interest, which works for everyone. For the teams that aren’t tanking, there’s some incentive to be bad, but not really bad.

►Where’s Harden?: Houston, we have a problem. There are rumblings that James Harden is unhappy and wants a trade away from the Rockets — quickly. There are a couple of teams that have the capital to make such a deal, but if Harden goes to the East, it could help shift the balance of power a little bit. If he somehow stays in Houston, the pairing with Christian Wood could be interesting to watch.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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