8 Fearless N.B.A. Season Predictions

iCrackStreamsDecember 23, 2020

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.

(Questions may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)

Q: The West is obviously going to have more than eight teams vying for playoff spots. Which teams do you think we can rule out now? — Natalie Anfuso (Wayne, Pa.)

Stein: I totally understand why you’re asking, because it’s a difficult question to answer. If you’re looking to rule out teams completely, I would feel comfortable naming only Oklahoma City — and that’s just because the Thunder have aggressively embraced a rebuilding posture. It wouldn’t surprise me, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander running the offense and Al Horford and Luguentz Dort anchoring the defense, if even the Thunder proved to be a tougher out than expected.

Every team in the West that finished eighth or lower last season has grander visions of this season’s ceiling. No. 8 Portland believes it will contend for a top-four seed after the acquisition of Robert Covington and some additional roster tweaking. Memphis placed ninth and is counting on a similar finish, at worst, purely through Ja Morant’s presumed improvement in Year 2. And No. 10 Phoenix is widely regarded as playoff material now after going 8-0 at the Walt Disney World bubble and then trading for Chris Paul.

While outsiders await a potential trade that ships out a veteran like LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan or Patty Mills, No. 11 San Antonio is optimistic that the experience its younger players gained in the bubble will make the Spurs a playoff sleeper. No. 13 New Orleans is one of the more difficult teams to assess and figures to have a puncher’s chance to reach the postseason purely based on the track record of its new coach, Stan Van Gundy, and Zion Williamson’s promising preseason. Golden State, of course, is expected to bounce back from the league’s worst record (15-50) to contend for a playoff berth — even with Klay Thompson out for the season after he tore his right Achilles’ tendon in November.

I have more confidence in Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell clicking and No. 14 Minnesota joining that mix ahead of No. 12 Sacramento, but the Timberwolves and the Kings have to be considered playoff long shots in a conference this deep. The Kings, remember, have missed the postseason for a league-high 14 consecutive seasons and, even with a revamped front office, left numerous rival teams stunned by their decision not to match Atlanta’s four-year, $72 million offer sheet to Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Q: Maybe it wasn’t part of the wildest off-season ever, but Luke Ridnour had a wild week in 2015 — he was traded five times, if I remember correctly. Did he ever play for any of them? — Barron Hall (Chicago)

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