With the NFL season in full swing, it’s about time for sports fans to turn their attention to the gridiron for the next few months. That being said, my LeBron James fandom still has me fired up about the NBA after a thrilling couple of months in the bubble. So, before I turn my attention to the NFL for the next few months of this column, I’m going to pay homage to a great NBA season and preview what should be an even better one next year.
The Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 NBA Finals convincingly, going 16-5 during their playoff run and dominating the Miami Heat in the decisive Game 6. James won his fourth championship with his third team, cementing his status as an NBA legend by winning a ring with the NBA’s most decorated franchise. Anthony Davis won his first championship, possibly laying the foundation for another storybook career in the purple and gold a la Shaq and Kobe.
The Lakers seemed to coast to a championship, winning 4-1 in each of their first three series. But it’s easy to forget how we all felt two months ago, when the Lakers stumbled to a 3-5 record in the bubble, lost Game 1 against the Portland Trail Blazers and appeared to be doomed in the free-for-all that was the bubble. After the Lakers picked up their game in the playoffs, many seem to think a Lakers repeat is inevitable. I think the league is going to be a lot tougher next season.
At the beginning of the playoffs, the Lakers, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Clippers appeared to be the teams to beat. The Bucks and Clippers were upset in the second round, leaving the Lakers in a final four with two No. 3 seeds and a No. 5 seed. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the best player in the NBA during the regular season, but he needs more than Khris Middleton around him to contend for a ring. Kawhi Leonard won a championship with a stellar Toronto Raptors team last year, but the Clippers didn’t have the chemistry to get past the underdog, the Denver Nuggets.
Next season, both the Raptors and Bucks will be in the mix again. While I am a firm believer that the Leonard hype got out of control after beating a depleted Golden State Warriors team in the Finals, he’s a top five player who plays well in big moments (usually). The Nuggets will be a contender as well, as Jamal Murray ascended to NBA stardom in the bubble to complement Nikola Jokić and form one of the best duos in the NBA. If rookie phenom Michael Porter Jr. takes major strides forward in year two, they could be a team to watch for.
If Luka Dončić becomes a top three player instead of a top eight player, the Dallas Mavericks will be a tough team to beat. The Boston Celtics have a deep team and a great coach, and they were two wins away from giving the Lakers a tough time in the Finals. Toronto, even without Leonard, dominated the East during the regular season and nearly made it past the Celtics. And who could forget the Heat, whose shooting and chemistry propelled them to a Cinderella run.
All the teams listed above have a legitimate shot at winning a championship, but what really makes the 2021 season fascinating are two teams that were nowhere to be found in the 2020 championship picture.
The first is the Brooklyn Nets, who signed Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan last offseason. James won a championship with Irving, and Durant, when healthy, is a top three player in the league. Durant missed the entire 2019-20 season with a torn Achilles, and Irving missed most of the season with a shoulder injury, but the Nets still made the playoffs behind Caris LeVert and solid depth. Durant is a two-time champion, but the narrative of his supposed “ring-chasing” career would change forever if he could win one in Brooklyn. Chemistry may be an issue as it was for Irving in Boston, but the pieces are there for the Nets to win it all.
And who could forget the Golden State Warriors? Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were off the grid last season, with Curry playing in only a few games after breaking his hand and Thompson recovering from a torn ACL all season. But the Dubs will be back in full force next year with Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and potentially the No. 2 draft pick if they don’t trade it. They’ve beaten James three times in the playoffs and will be hungry to make it four after watching James claim a ring in their absence.
While last year’s offseason completely altered the makeup of the league, the star power isn’t there with this season’s free agent pool. Still, there are numerous shooters on the market, as well as rumblings of trades for household names like Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo and Derrick Rose. Two stars was enough for the Lakers this season, but they will need more than just Davis and James to repeat. The Bucks have a couple of shooters, but they may need another to spread the floor for Giannis.
The upcoming season is expected to start before Christmas and last 72 games, which will help ensure that the season finishes before the Olympic Games and the league can slowly get back to its original schedule. This is a quick turnaround for the Lakers, Heat and the league as a whole. But it’s an exciting proposition for fans eager to recapture the excitement of NBA basketball in a wide-open league, one where multiple superstars desperately need a championship for the sake of their legacies.
Also, the World Series has been exciting, especially Game 4. Sorry, baseball. Go Rays.