Sam Smith's 2020-21 Standings Predictions

The NBA season tips off on Tuesday night as Sam Smith predicts how the standings will shake out
Giannis reacts
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

Body

It's time to take a break from talking about sickness, however significant its gravitas, and instead talk about NBA sickness. You know, like Zion's dunks, Westbrook's frenzy, LeBron's sinew, Steph's range, Luka's magic and Trae's tricks. Now that's sick.

The NBA is back again, and though things have changed, things remain the same.

LeBron James and the Lakers are the consensus favorites to repeat as NBA champions, if not for a second consecutive season without 82 games. This time it's supposed to be Covid-19 permitting 72 games, which was a full season in the NBA the last time in 1958-59. The worldwide pandemic has all sports rigorously enforcing alternating guidelines. The NBA is planning a break halfway through its 2020-21 season in early March, presumably for makeup games. To start the season, six teams are allowing some fans into games, Cleveland, Utah, Houston, Orlando, New Orleans and Toronto relocated to Tampa because of border restrictions. Most capacity is below 20 percent except Houston and Orlando. The playoffs are scheduled for May 22 to July 6 and the Finals possible seventh game July 22. The Japan Olympics are supposed to begin July 23 with the NBA returning to its traditional calendar for the 2021-22 season. Everyone hopes.

There's plenty of crossed fingers, four leaf clovers, ladybugs and rabbits' feet being embraced throughout sports to get through the schedule with the possibilities of a vaccine on the horizon. Atlanta and San Antonio are planning to allow some fans starting in January. It all suggests a season unlike any others following the longest season ever. And now virus avoidance becomes more important than superstar talent. Attendance may be the most important talent this season.

It's the shortest ever turnaround for an NBA season after the Lakers defeated the Miami Heat in Game 6 on October 11 for the championship. NBA tradition requires the champion on opening night, which will be Tuesday. It's the match that was supposed to be a rematch after last season's conference finals were sabotaged by the Denver Nuggets defeating the dysfunctional Los Angeles Clippers.

It's again the Lakers further enriched by the additions of Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol against the Clippers in the second game after Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving make their combined Brooklyn Nets debut against Durant's former Golden State mates with Stephen Curry without injured Klay Thompson. The rest of the league including the Bulls hosting the Atlanta Hawks gets underway Wednesday and then five featured games for Christmas Day Friday.

The NBA had near perfect attendance in its summer Orlando bubble/campus compound. Some players were locked in for almost four months. That proved untenable for a repeat. So the league will again have extensive travel across conferences and the country. Some sicknesses are expected. There have been at least a dozen so far with a few Bulls apparently afflicted.

Because of the short turnaround to start, there was some speculation Lakers and Heat players could ease into the season. Though all appear scheduled to play this opening week.

It's just one of many tumultuous storylines that makes the NBA unique among sports leagues. You think that's something, well wait until you see this.

Like Russell Westbrook now in Washington with Bradley Beal as John Wall joins DeMarcus Cousins in Houston with or without James Harden, who may be headed to join Durant and Kyrie or maybe Jokic or Embiid. There's very underrated Jrue Holiday partnering with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, Doc examining that mess in Philadelphia, CP3 seeing four others the desert, Thibs to the coach's last resort, Zion in the Pelicans calculus and Gordon Haywood quietly to Charlotte as potential 2021 free agents were going like hotcakes. You know big cheeses who were the apple of your team's eye who have been known to sow some wild oats before bringing home the bacon. Piece of cake.

So if you're also hungry for the NBA, it's time to pull out a chair, slip on your mask, fear the deer, trust the process and grit 'n grind. Showtime! Yes, it's Fantastic. We love this game!

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Giannis layup

Milwaukee Bucks, 56-17 record in 2019-20.

This is the most to prove team with a second consecutive playoff collapse after having the best record, the MVP and the most cheese curds. They messed up adding one of those many Bogdanovics, but Jrue Holiday finally gets in position to not be the most underrated and Khris Middleton slips into his more appropriate third option. And Bobby P! Giannis with his massive extension and apparent affection for brats and beer is the rare star who is a load and isn't managing his play. It's all about their postseason. Better to get there in style.

Joel Embiid goes up

2. Philadelphia 76ers, 43-30.

I keep picking Embiid for MVP, but he's not as serious as I am. Now there's a new coach in Doc Rivers, a new top executive in Daryl Morey and the same plan to try to persuade Embiid he's not a guard. And perhaps do some situps. I'm not sure Dwight Howard is a stabilizing force, but they did finally add some shooting with the other Curry and Danny Green, who now is being aged by rings around his trunk. Rivers isn't a big disciplinarian, but he has a big resume. If Embiid will respect that and Morey doesn't go all in for Harden, who knows.

Irving Durant defend

3. Brooklyn Nets, 35-37.

This is the car wreck everyone will be rubber necking. What better place than New York? First time he's ever coached anyone other than his kid's soccer team, Steve Nash gets the uncoachable Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant coming back from awful injuries. They're supposed to have the East's most talent with Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LaVert. Joe Harris, etc. You get the sense this is the Clippers bi-coastal nightmare, the hard working role players who overachieved for two years revolting over the special treatment for the new stars. Especially as they pace their way through the season after injuries. There's no way this can work, right?

marcus smart drives

4. Boston Celtics, 48-24.

It will be interesting to see how much a trade exception can score. They got a huge one with Gordon Haywood's independence movement. So what ever happened to all those draft picks and salary cap specials from dumping the old veterans? Hey, it can get you fourth! There's still a bunch of good, tough guys there and they added Tristan Thompson to their small ball menu. It probably all depends on Kemba Walker's ability to walk with that knee.

Pascal Siakam shoots

5. Toronto Raptors, 53-19.

Wonder how they decided to pick Tampa when Canada kicked them out. We the South? I've doubted them plenty, though more so last year because I figured losing Kawhi and having that title it was an ideal time to cash in Gasol, Ibaka and Lowry and get a head start on 2030. Canadians are so nice and understanding. But, no, they insisted on competing and they are a tough group. So let's see now if Pascal Siakam is an All-Star or all-head case from that disappointing playoff series. Nick Nurse has emerged as a top three NBA coach and while I'm not sure what adding Alex Len and Aaron Baynes means, he'll figure it out.

Heat team

6. Miami Heat, 44-29.

Not that the Finals appearance was a fluke, but I'm not a believer yet. It's tough to get through the playoffs like they did without home court advantage, though there actually wasn't any last season in the bubble. That made it a lot easier for all those young guys they had flinging shots. And by the way, Max Strus for a two-way was smart. That kid from DePaul and Windy City really can shoot. They sure have a lot of shooters, which does seem to help these days. Avery Bradley is a good addition with Jimmy and Dragic, but enough with all their culture talk. and there's little in at least the city of Miami you'd call culture. They won those titles because LeBron liked living in Coconut Grove more than Deerfield.

Oladipo shoots

7. Indiana Pacers, 45-28.

They were the most active team in the offseason that did nothing. We all were sure Haywood was on the way back home and Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner were headed elsewhere and what the heck happened with Nate McMillan. But they're all back, Oladipo certainly healthier and T.J. Warren now somebody.

Westbrook layup

8. Washington Wizards, 25-47.

They traded a guy who's been out for two years for a guy who was league MVP and annual all-league team member. That sounds good. Russell Westbrook is moving around a lot; off the court, as well. But it's an intriguing pairing with Bradley Beal and with Robin Lopez they'll for sure have the best pregame camaraderie.

Coach Donovan

9. Chicago Bulls, 22-43.

In Billy Donovan they trust. This gets a team into the Nos. 7-10 play-in tournament this season, which is a chance. The Bulls return with basically the same roster that couldn't earn a few futile weeks in Orlando last summer. But with a new coach who is disciplined, organized and experienced. He's got a plan and guys are paying attention with multiple free agents playing for their careers and contracts. If not only for pride, money is a good motivator.

Vucevic rebounds

10. Orlando Magic, 33-40.

They never look like much, but they often figure a way with the underrated Nikola Vucevic. They lost Jonathan Isaac again for a season, so they gave him a new contract extension. It is a Magic kingdom. Their rookie Cole Anthony, son of NBAer Greg, is the shootingest rookie out there. If they let him play much he'll lead the league in field goal attempts. Markelle Fultz said the shooting is fixed. We'll see with mighty mouse D.J. Augustin having left and no longer able to save the day.

Gallinari shoots

11. Atlanta Hawks, 20-47.

This is everyone's favorite team to make a move after moves for Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo and old friend Kris Dunn, who is having knee problems again to start the season. John Collins, Clint Cappella, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish; a lot of guys there. Not much defense, especially with Dunn out, and it seems like some uneasy fits, a fancy suit with Muppets buttons.

Ball and Hornets celebrate

12. Charlotte Hornets, 23-42.

Adding Gordon Haywood and drafting LaMelo Ball should at least get them a few TNT games. Haywood arrives fragile and Ball not frugal with the ball. They have a bunch of guards who like to shoot and isolate, but if they make those shots it might be something.

Thibs and the Knicks

13. New York Knicks, 21-45.

In Thibs we also trust. They may have the least talented roster in the NBA. But Thibs tends to strain stuff out of not much. Who knows for how long.

Hayes looks 14. Detroit Pistons, 20-46.

It's not clear what they are doing going with rookie point guard Killian Hayes and then adding the likes of Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee and Jahill Okafor. Derrick Rose comes off the bench and in his final season likely will be much mentioned in trade talk closer to the March 25 deadline. Oh right, Blake Griffin. He sure moves slowly these days.

Collin Sexton shoots

15. Cleveland Cavaliers, 19-46.

They could beat you certain games with Andre Drummond and Kevin Love. And JaVale McGee, too? It's an unusual talent combination with Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. Did I ever mention the good pizza place I found there near the arena? OK, Jo, maybe don't go there for vacation, but the pizza?

WESTERN CONFERENCE

LeBron brings ball up

Los Angeles Lakers, 52-19 record in 2019-20.

And another championship for…Rajon Rondo and Danny Green. They're gone, replaced by what appears to be upgrades with top sixth men from last season, Schroder and Harrell. LeBron whined some about starting again too quickly, but he is a competitive guy. And now it's also about the greatest debate. Jordan can't put out another documentary. Anthony Davis is staying in LA long term, big surprise, and it's going to be difficult to wrestle this run away from them the way LeBron still is playing. And you have to be nicer to senior citizens.

Leonard drives

2. Los Angeles Clippers, 49-23.

Kawhi and Paul George are serious this time. Heck, they may even play in a back to back. They were last season's debacle, getting Doc Rivers fired for not minding the nursery better. Adding Serge Ibaka is big and shooter Luke Kennard could be a surprise helper. George signed a huge extension and after blaming everyone else probably needs to show a bit more. This time they're really serious, but you also know Lou Williams at $8 mil isn't thrilled.

Jokic

3. Denver Nuggets, 46-27.

They're the sum greater than their parts guys, though Jamal Murray appeared to take that next step in the rarified bubble shooting air. They lost Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee and seem to be counting big time on Michael Porter Jr. with the big breakthrough as he showed vital signs in the playoffs. It still revolves around Jokic, the best second round pick since Manu. Oh yeah, Toni and Dennis, too.

Nurkic rebounds

4. Portland Trailblazers, 35-39.

They squeezed their way into the playoffs after an injury-plagued regulars season. Zach Collins is out again, but Jusuf Nurkic is back and they added Robert Covington and Enes Kanter. It's still all about Lillard and McCollum and with some help they could return to the conference finals.

Mitchell passes

5. Utah Jazz, 44-28.

Donovan Mitchell also had fun shooting in Orlando's heavy air, and that may not be great considering his occasional accuracy. They didn't do much in the offseason, but should get a full season from Mike Conley. They've got a Bogdanovic and old buddy Shaq Harrison gets to be bothersome. They generally are.

Zion Williamson

6. New Orleans Pelicans, 30-42.

It's time to begin resetting some things in the West. Zion appears like he's going to take this season seriously. And he looks as difficult to defend in the paint as LeBron. They've got a lot of scoring talent and a new coach in Stan Van Gundy, who is appropriately demanding and not one to worry about how the kids feel. It will be good for them.

Chris Paul talks

7. Phoenix Suns, 34-39.

When you add Chris Paul as difficult as he can be sometimes as a demanding teammate, you get better. He knows how to direct the band. Devin Booker needed someone like him to get the ball out of his hands and Paul should wake up DeAndre Ayton as well. Or at least help him read the ingredients on the pill bottle.

Doncic drives

8. Dallas Mavericks, 43-32.

With Kristaps Porzingis out yet again, though they insist it's not serious this time, Luka is going to get a lot, lot, lot of attention. This isn't always the most welcoming country, but it was curious the way the officials allowed Luka to get assaulted during the Orlando games. He seems like such a nice guy. Not an MVP candidate this season if they're eighth. Josh Richardson should be an improvement over their Curry, but there's still not enough there.

Curry layup

9. Golden State Warriors, 15-50.

Well, they should double their win total. Would that get Steve Kerr coach of the year? It's going to be a longer way back with Klay Thompson out another season and Draymond Green having injury issues. Stephen Curry is back from missing most of last season and it looks like they got a good one in the draft in center James Wiseman, who'll start soon. Something to watch: Green was ideal as a cohort filling the gaps. His skills made him a second round pick. If he thinks he's Curry's offensive sidekick, they have problems.

Wall drives

10. Houston Rockets, 44-28.

Hey, it gets them into the play-in. No one quite knows what to make of this with James Harden in full pout mode as trade rumors continue. Wait until they trade him to Minnesota or Sacramento. John Wall looked great in his return after missing two years, and DeMarcus Cousins did also with about 50 pounds missing. But it's difficult to see them holding up with this tough schedule for everyone. And where is Waldo Harden going to be?

Morant celebrates

11. Memphis Grizzlies, 34-39.

Losing Jaren Jackson Jr. again into January is a blow because he's really good. Ja Morant has been really, really impressive and they've got a hard playing, underrated group (I guess by me, too) that could push several teams ahead of them.

Bagley layup

12. Sacramento Kings, 31-41.

We're all anxious to finally see Marvin Bagley after so many more stops than starts. De'Aaron Fox always seems like a talent ready to break through and they are high on rookie Tyrese Haliburton. It still doesn't get you too far in the Western Conference with Hassan Whiteside back where he started and, it seems, still in slow motion. Does he ever actually jump?

Edwards dribbles

13. Minnesota Timberwolves, 19-45.

No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards seems the right fit with D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns. And Ricky Rubio is back where he started. But most depends on Towns, who never has been as effective as he should be. Maybe we all were wrong. It's his time to show.

DeRozan shoots

14. San Antonio Spurs, 32-39.

The next streak is consecutive years missing the playoffs, which should be two. They still have DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, who seem to have eyes elsewhere. Devin Vassell looks like he could be an underrated rookie surprise. Gregg Popovich finally, we think, gets the Olympic team next summer. Figures as the games start a day after the season ends. Popovich will get as much out of them as they have and anyone can, but there's not much there.

OKC team

15. Oklahoma City Thunder, 44-28.

The difference has to be Billy Donovan, right? It's a long way down for them with Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams leaving the big overachievers following Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and remember they also had James Harden. And Nick Collison, Paul George and Carmelo. At least they have their memories.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

NEXT UP:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter