With the new season approaching sooner rather than later, I think it’s time for some “right on time” or “way too early,” however you want to see it, predictions for the season. More specifically, the top 8 seeds in both conferences, including the 9th and 10th seeds that can be involved in the newly implemented play-in tournament.

What is this new play-in tournament thing you ask? Well, we first saw it in the Bubble and it allowed the teams that finished outside the top eight, specifically the ninth seed to play for a shot at entering the playoffs. This season, the rules will be that the 7th and 8th seed will play in order to win the spot of the 7th seed, while the 9th and 10th seed will battle it out for a chance at the loser of the previously mentioned matchup, where the winner takes that last 8th seed. 

There are also the questions of who will find themselves with the MVP, Rookie of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, and the Most Improved Player awards. I’ll give my predictions for those later on. This season will be one like no other. 72 instead of 82 games. No All-Star game, but an All-Star break. The usual frustrations of injuries, both in the fan bases and of the fantasy players will only be heightened since now we will also have inevitable positive COVID cases flying around. But who will come out on top and consider their teams “successful”? 

Eastern Conference

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks were a formidable team last season. At least until the playoffs. They finished with an impressive 56-17 record when the season was stopped. I expect to see more of the same this season with another MVP-like season from Giannis Antetokounmpo as well as the consistent steady hand and shot of Khris Middleton who has crazy efficiency stats. Last season he was .3% away from being in the 50/40/90 club. Oh, they also traded for an excellent two-way guard in Jrue Holiday. In New Orleans last year, he averaged 19.1 points on 45.5% shooting from the field. With that addition the Bucks can only get better, so yes, they should reclaim the top seed. 

Boston Celtics

The Celtics lost Gordon Hayward but added Tristan Thompson from free agency and Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard, and Yam Maddar from the draft. The key is Jayson Tatum, though. He is a great player that has been improving every year since he was drafted in 2017. He has the potential to have an MVP-caliber season. Flanked by Jaylen Brown, who is also improving and Marcus Smart, one of the elite defenders of the game, the Boston Celtics will definitely be up there. 

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors are just the Raptors. A good overall team. They’ve got the players and the coach to once again be one of the best in the East. They don’t look different since Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry are still there. OG Anunoby is still there to be that good wing on both sides of the ball while Fred VanVleet also re-signed and solidified himself as the guard of the future. Aron Baynes is now a Raptor and can act as a stretch five allowing Siakam to feast inside. 

Miami Heat

Last season’s finalists are a team that is here to stay and solidify themselves in the upper echelon of the East. I would have them higher, but I am afraid that the other teams around the league will not take them as lightly as they may have last season since they are now NBA finalists. That taste of the championship atmosphere will propel their guys Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and even their youngsters like Tyler Herro and newly drafted Precious Achiuwa to keep up the pace and maybe get even better. 

Philadelphia 76ers

Ah, the Sixers, my favorite team to be burned by every season. I have ranked them higher up in the past couple of seasons, but not this one. Even though they will be led by the usual suspects of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the duo is bound to miss games, as injury problems will nag them and their desire to stay fresh for the playoffs will be there. I don’t think they will set the regular season on fire as they will be in cruise control. They will, however, do just enough to be somewhere in the middle of the pack, but not enough to beat out the teams mentioned higher up.

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets led by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will not be as good as people think they will be, primarily due to the fact that KD and Kyrie will miss a ton of games. There is a new coaching staff comprised of head coach Steve Nash, assistant coaches Jacque Vaughn and Mike D’Antoni, and Amar’e Stoudemire, who will oversee player development. Too many cooks in the kitchen for my liking. They basically have three head coaches with Kyrie saying that both he and KD could also be head coaches. This might blow up in their faces, but they have the talent of some of the best players in the NBA to make a playoff spot, though. 

Indiana Pacers
Victor Oladipo is back and ready, so we will hopefully see that backcourt tandem with Malcolm Brogdon on a consistent basis. TJ Warren, who caught fire in the Bubble, will be out to start the season due to injury and is designated as a week-to-week player. This could hinder them in the beginning but should be fine over the course of the season. The main question is the fit between Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Turner was a part of trade talks with Boston, but the move never materialized, so he’ll stay in Indian to play alongside an ever-improving Sabonis, who is a nightly double-double threat and arguably the best player on the Pacers. Health will play a big role for this team but they will have the strength and quality to put together enough wins in order to slip into the playoffs as a lower seed that’ll have to go through the play-in tournament first.
Washington Wizards
The Wizards completed one of the most peculiar trades of the offseason, acquiring Russell Westbrook for John Wall and a first-round pick. They also selected Deni Avdija in the lottery who I have high hopes for. Last season they finished on the cusp of the playoffs but fell short. This season should bring a different outcome. There is no way a Russ team, even with all his faults, won’t allow it to happen. The Wizards now have two all-stars in Russ and Bradley Beal flanked by good role players in Davis Bertans, Thomas Bryant, the emerging Troy Brown Jr., the rookie Avdija, and sophomore Rui Hachimura. They won’t be a force in the East but they will sneak in as the 8th seed.
Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks will be one of the most interesting teams in the league. They brought in players like Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Rajon Rondo through free agency. They also have Clint Capela who they acquired last season and still hasn’t played a regular game for them. John Collins and Trae Young are the cornerstones. The Hawks will have a phenomenal offense, scoring from all over the court, but where’s the defense? Young is not a good defender and new signings Gallo and Bogie are also deficient. Same with Collins. The defensive struggles will prohibit the Hawks from matching the preseason hype, but the offense will keep them in contention.
Chicago Bulls
The Bulls? Here? As the 10th seed? Yes, The Bulls will get a spot in the play-in tournament. They finally have a competent coach in Billy Donovan and a rejuvenated front office spearheaded by Arturas Karnisovas. They got their guy Patrick Williams in the draft even though they did reach for him with the fourth overall pick. Zach LaVine, Wendell Carter Jr., Coby White, and bounce-back candidate Lauri Markkanen make for a nice young core. Lauri was not utilized correctly last season, spotting up on the perimeter chucking 3s. It was frustrating to see as a fan of his and since I had him on my fantasy squad. They are a good young hungry team that Billy Donovan will change for the better. Look out for the Bulls people!

 

Western Conference

Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers absolutely choked in the playoffs last year. I had them going all the way and winning the chip, but they did not come to play against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets. They had their chemistry problems which likely caused the downfall. Subsequently, they fired Doc Rivers and brought in Ty Lue, let Montrezl Harrell walk, and replaced him with Serge Ibaka. And yet, the culprits, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are still there, because come on, of course they will be. The Clippers once again are great on paper and can be considered a title contender. I think they will reach the top spot, as their main competitors on the other side of LA will probably sit LeBron for a boatload of games. 

Los Angeles Lakers:

The reigning champs! The Lakers are poised to go back to back, but I do not see them tearing up the regular season and claiming the top spot like last season. They will have their MVP candidate LeBron James sitting a lot and maybe even Anthony Davis will miss a game here and there. Even with players sitting they will be good enough to take the second spot on the backs of Montrezl Harrell, Wesley Matthews, and Dennis Schroeder

Denver Nuggets:

The Nuggets are coming off the back of a Western Conference Finals appearance and will definitely want to go back. They have the roster to do so and can enter the playoffs as one of the top speeds. Nikola Jokic is a nightly triple-double threat and we saw Jamal Murray cement himself as a star in the Bubble. They did lose Jerami Grant but this will allow Michael Porter Jr. to step in and take the jump towards realizing his potential. MPJ could be really big for them this season and I am here for it. The Nuggets are one of the most cohesive teams in the league and will be ready to rack up wins once again this upcoming season.

Utah Jazz:

Next we have Donovan Mitchell and company  to round off the top half of the playoff picture. This may be a bit too high for some people, but the Jazz will be somewhere in this range. Mitchell is only getting better and is an excellent scorer and ball handler while Rudy Gobert is still there to provide rim protection, grab boards, get the putbacks, and churn out double doubles. They also have great role players in Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, and Jordan Clarkson. Let’s not forget Mike Conley is still there to run point for them, even though he did not have the best season last year. The Jazz are an overall deep team and will find themselves easily inside the playoffs. 

Golden State Warriors:

Just like most of you I presume, I was beyond excited to see the return of the Splash Bros, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. But now, we’re just getting one splash bro. Klay Thompson tore his Achilles after rehabbing a torn ACL. An extremely hard pill to swallow for Klay and horrible news for us to hear. If not for this injury I’d probably have the Warriors higher, but this injury does hurt them. They do however get Stephen Curry back finally in full health, after he barely played any games last season. The newly drafted James Wiseman will also play a big role, as I expect him to start him at center. This isn’t the Warriors team of the past that we’ve been accustomed to, but they’re still pretty good. 

Dallas Mavericks:

The Mavericks have the guy who I think may well be the MVP of the season. That man is Luka Doncic. He is a player that can literally have a 30 point, triple-double on any given night. The only other players that come to mind are LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Kristaps Porzingis is also an intricate part of this team, but will miss the start of the season due to injury and will sit out more games as the season progresses because you know, his knee. Or is it both of them that have been hurt now? They’ve also addressed their defensive shortcomings with the acquisition of Josh Richardson. You can pencil in the Mavericks for a sure fire postseason appearance. 

Portland Trailblazers: 

One of the lessons I learned from the Bubble and the tail end of last season before it was halted was that you cannot underestimate and disregard Damian Lillard. The man is bonkers and will carry the Blazers into the playoffs. He still has his running mate in CJ McCollum and a returning Jusuf Nurkic to help out. Dame will have an amazing season this year. Watch out for that!

Phoenix Suns: 

The Suns will be in playoff contention this season. Simple as that. They won’t take the league by storm, but the acquisition of Chris Paul will be enough to give them that extra boost to put them in the top 8 of the West. Deandre Ayton, barring any failed drug tests like last year, will play an entire season and will average 20/10, while the all-star of the team, Devin Booker, now has extra help and can continue improving his game and being that guy for Phoenix. Overall, the Suns are shaping up to be an exciting team this season. 

Memphis Grizzlies: 

The Grizzlies, led by Ja Morant, were impressive last season and beat out many rankings and predictions. This year, I think they will improve slightly, but the stacked West will not allow them to end up in  the top 8. Their excellent play will get them into the play-in spot, though, where they can fight for a shot to enter. We can expect another great year from Ja Morant and improvements from Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr.  (even though he will be injured to start the season), while good production can be expected from Jonas Valanciunas as well. The addition of Desmond Bane from the draft is one to keep an eye, as he can knock down a couple of 3s and help the team get wins. 

New Orleans Pelicans: 

The Pelicans will be better than last year. SVG will get plenty out of his young team, but I do not think it’ll be enough to get a playoff spot. Zion Williamson will likely average a double double while Brandon Ingram continues his rise. I expect Lonzo Ball to come out and have a great year and be a nightly triple-double threat. The logjam at the guard spot is interesting now that they’ve drafted Kira Lewis Jr. after acquiring Eric Bledsoe in the Jrue Holiday trade. Nonetheless, the Pels will get a lot of nationally televised games and will be an entertaining team. 

 

Awards

MVP: Luka Doncic – Dallas Mavericks

Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball – Charlotte Hornets OR Obi Toppin – New York Knicks (I can’t decide)

Sixth Man of the Year: Derrick Rose – Detroit Pistons

Most Improved Player: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Oklahoma City Thunder 

Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Davis – Los Angeles Lakers

Coach of the Year: Billy Donovan – Chicago Bulls

People, strap in because we’ve got a wild season ahead of us with many twists and turns. By the end of the year, I’ll probably come back to this and laugh at how wrong I was. Feel free to laugh along with me. Anyway, if you’d like more, check out my past season preview articles and my podcast, “Overtime Zone” which can be found wherever you get your podcasts. And finally, good luck to all your favorite teams and players out there!