Revisiting the 2020-21 NBA Season Preview

May 16th, 2021

By Alan Lu

Before the start of the season, I made my regular season and playoff projections, while our staff made award picks.

I think there were definitely some hits and misses in these predictions, but overall, I’m fairly comfortable about my projections fared for this season.  It wasn’t always on the mark, but I’m glad to have put in the work. 

Also, for those that wish to know how I had projected players and teams to do in the 2020-21 NBA regular season back on December 20th, 2020, here is the link.

The Utah Jazz and the Philadelphia 76ers finished at the top of their respective conferences at the end of the 2020-21 NBA regular season, and both of those teams will be awarded with 1 seeds in the 2021 NBA Playoffs.
Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune)

Here is how the Western Conference teams fared, along with their records, with my projected finish and regular season win total in parenthesis.

Actual Western Conference Standings, Regular Season Record (My Preseason Rank, and Preseason Projected Win-Loss Record)

The Top 6 Finishers (the top 6 seeds are locked in):

  1. Utah Jazz, 52-20 (4, 41-31)
  2. Phoenix Suns, 51-21 (7, 38-34, had previously projected them to be the 7th seed)
  3. Denver Nuggets, 47-25 (2, 45-27)
  4. Los Angeles Clippers, 47-25 (3, 42-30)
  5. Dallas Mavericks, 42-30 (5, 39-33)
  6. Portland Trail Blazers, 42-30 (6, 39-33)

The Play-In Game Teams (the 7th and 8th seeds are yet to be determined):

7. Los Angeles Lakers, 42-30 (1, 50-22)
8. Golden State Warriors, 39-33 (9, 36-36, had previously projected them to end up with the 8th seed)
9. Memphis Grizzlies, 38-34 (11, 35-37)
10. San Antonio Spurs, 33-39 (12, 34-38)

The Eliminated Teams (these teams cannot make the playoffs):

11. New Orleans Pelicans, 31-41 (8, 36-36, had projected them to be eliminated in the play-in games)
12. Sacramento Kings, 31-41 (13, 31-41)
13. Minnesota Timberwolves, 23-49 (14, 28-44)
14. Oklahoma City Thunder, 22-50 (15, 20-52)
15. Houston Rockets, 17-55 (10, 36-36, had projected them to be eliminated in the play-in game)

I projected five of the first six teams to finish in the top 6, with the Phoenix Suns being the only team I projected outside of that, and the Suns fared better than I expected.  Certainly, landing Chris Paul in the trade definitely helped them, and the Suns have been playing very well this year.

Also, much props to head coach Quin Snyder and the Utah Jazz, as they were able to get the best regular season record in the NBA. While I did project them to be a top-4 seed in the West, they managed to even surpass my already fairly high expectations of them. Also, the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Clippers also managed to lock up top-4 seeds as expected, and Denver Nuggets’ center, Nikola Jokić has turned in an MVP-level worthy season this year.

On the flip side, I was surprised that the Lakers fell out of the top 6, and ended up in the play-in game.  Since they are the defending champions, and added Dennis Schröder and Marc Gasol in the offseason, the Lakers were expected to finish at or near the top of the standings, since they also have two of the top superstars in the game in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but it seems that a short turnaround time, injuries and fatigue have left them bereft of depth, and to losing more games than anticipated in the regular season.

My prediction of the Golden State Warriors seemed to be just about on the mark, and they could be slated to wind up with the 8th seed at the end of the play-in games, just like I had predicted.  The San Antonio Spurs actually won less games than anticipated, but they managed to get into the play-in game, nevertheless.

My predicted win-loss record of the Sacramento Kings was spot-on.  I projected them at 31-41, and that is exactly how they finished.  I’m not sure if they will bring back head coach Luke Walton, but rookie guard Tyrese Haliburton played well, and they will be continuing to add pieces for the future.

The New Orleans Pelicans continued to be disappointing as a team overall.  Second-year forward, Zion Williamson enjoyed having immense success individually as he made his first NBA All-Star team.  On the downside, I projected the Pelicans to be able to get to the play-in game, since it was thought that head coach Stan Van Gundy would lead Zion and one-time All-Star Brandon Ingram there, but the Pelicans couldn’t quite get there.

I had known that James Harden was displeased with his situation with the Houston Rockets, but I did not know that the Rockets would actually trade him a few games into the season.  If I had, my projection for the Rockets would’ve been much worse, and I’d have projected them closer to my projection of the 2021 Oklahoma City Thunder team this year.  It’s hard to fault their head coach for those losses, because James Harden contributed so much for the Houston Rockets, so that they were going to substantially be a worse team when they traded him away to Brooklyn.

Overall, I seemed to be mostly on the mark in projecting how the top teams would finish in the regular season, with the exception of the Lakers falling out of the top 6 to conclude the regular season.  Amongst eliminated teams prior to the play-in game, I seemed to have a decent handle, but I overrated the Pelicans and the Rockets, especially since I thought that they would hold on to James Harden.

For the Western Conference teams that wound up in the play-in games, it seems that I was basically right on the mark in projecting the Warriors in that range, but not so much with the other teams, and I definitely should’ve projected the Grizzlies and the Spurs to have a higher finish in the regular season standings in hindsight.

Actual Eastern Conference Standings, Regular Season Record (My Preseason Rank, and Preseason Projected Win-Loss Record)

The Top 6 Finishers (the top 6 seeds are locked in):

  1. Philadelphia 76ers, 49-23 (6, 39-33)
  2. Brooklyn Nets, 48-24 (3, 42-30)
  3. Milwaukee Bucks, 46-26 (1, 49-23)
  4. New York Knicks, 41-31 (12, 30-42)
  5. Atlanta Hawks, 41-31 (9, 32-40, previously had projected them to be eliminated in the play-in game)
  6. Miami Heat, 40-32 (4, 41-31)

The Play-in Game Teams (the 7th and 8th seeds are yet to be determined):

7. Boston Celtics, 36-36 (5, 40-32)
8. Washington Wizards, 34-38 (8, 33-39, had projected them to end up with the 8th seed)
9. Indiana Pacers, 34-38 (7, 37-35, had projected them to end up with the 7th seed)
10. Charlotte Hornets, 33-39 (13, 28-44)

The Eliminated Teams (these teams cannot make the playoffs):

11. Chicago Bulls, 31-41 (11, 30-42)
12. Toronto Raptors, 27-45 (2, 46-26)
13. Cleveland Cavaliers, 22-50 (14, 27-45)
14. Orlando Magic, 21-51 (10, 31-41, had projected them to be eliminated in the play-in game)
15. Detroit Pistons, 20-52 (15, 25-47)

For the top six teams, I picked four of the six teams to finish in the top 6 in the East, just not in the correct order.  I should’ve had the Nets pull down more wins, but I was unsure how healthy Durant and Kyrie would be this year, and I did not know that they would acquire James Harden early this season.  They look to be a strong team that could contend to win the title this year.

The Philadelphia 76ers had a really good regular season, and they managed to have the best record in the East. They churned out an MVP-level worthy season out of superstar center Joel Embiid, and head coach Doc Rivers led the 76ers to plenty of more wins than expected.

The Knicks and the Hawks were the two pleasant surprises this year.  I didn’t project either to make the playoffs this season, and I did not have much confidence in the Hawks’ former head coach Lloyd Pierce. In fact, I had Pierce rated as among the worst NBA head coaches prior to the start of the season, with then Minnesota Timberwolves‘ head coach, Ryan Saunders rating as the worst incumbent NBA head coach, so I was not at all surprised when the Hawks decided to fire Pierce.

The Knicks have installed a defensive mentality and a winning culture under new head coach Tom Thibodeau, and Julius Randle is now an All-Star that is one of the best players in the league right now.  The New York Knicks have built themselves a solid team, and they should be thrilled of what they were able to accomplish this year.

The Atlanta Hawks have absolutely flourished under new head coach Nate McMillan, who supplanted Pierce midseason, and the Hawks now look to be the offensive force many had hoped them to be.  Moreover, the Hawks went 27-11 with Nate McMillan as their head coach, and if you prorate that projection for a full season if he had been their head coach all along, the Hawks then would have projected to finish with the best record in the East if they had McMillan as their head coach from the get go, and if they continued to win games at this pace.

In the play-in game range, I hit on about half of those teams.  I projected the Wizards and the Pacers to get the latter two spots to play in the first round of the playoffs prior to the start of the season.  I’m not sure if that will be the case any more, though.

The Boston Celtics surprisingly faltered under fairly high expectations, and they ended up having to play in the play-in game.  It seems that injuries and fatigue has set in, and they will have to find their stride once again to be contenders in this year’s playoffs.

The Charlotte Hornets were a welcome surprise, and rookie guard, LaMelo Ball is a very skilled playmaker whom played very well and looks to be the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award this year.  Head coach James Borrego did a very good job, and he was able to navigate his team to the play-in game even though Ball missed considerable time late in the season due to injury before returning.

I feel like I had a decent handle on which teams would be eliminated for the most part.  I projected the Bulls, the Cavaliers, and the Pistons to all get eliminated before the play-in games, which happened to be the case.  I projected the Detroit Pistons to be the worst team in the East, which also turned out to be true, and they ended up being even worse than the bad team I thought they’d be.

It was a big swing and a miss for me in terms of predicting how the Toronto Raptors would fare this season. Unfortunately, I grossly overrated the estimated impact of the 2020-21 Toronto Raptors, and my confidence in head coach, Nick Nurse’s coaching skills now has been shaken a bit.  It seems that one-time All-Star forward, Pascal Siakam couldn’t replicate the monster year he had last year, and the rest of the league seems to be catching up to him.  The Raptors got off to a rough start and they never recovered, and it seems that losing Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka hurt them much more than expected.

Revisiting The Preseason 2021 Award Predictions:

I probably should have clarified that my playoff predictions I made were by me alone in the first half of the article, but the preseason award picks were a collaborative, group effort. Most of our award picks that we made in the preseason probably would not hold up, as our votes for those awards months ago will not be nearly the same votes that we would cast for today. As I am writing this, neither our projected MVP, head coach of the year winner, defensive player of the year winner, rookie of the year award winner, or sixth man of the year award winner prior to the start of the season would match with the players I would vote for today to win those awards.

I had predicted LeBron to win the MVP this year, but he’s been hurt for plenty of time this year, and the MVP race is largely considered to be between Denver Nuggets’ center Nikola Jokic and Philadelphia 76ers’ center, Joel Embiid, with Rudy Gobert and Stephen Curry having an outside shot to win that award this season. That said, Rudy Gobert and Ben Simmons would still get my All-Defensive first team vote, and Jimmy Butler has good odds to make the All-Defensive first team as well. As for the second team, Lu Dort was projected to be on the All-Defensive second team, and he would stand to still likely earn our vote for the All-Defensive second team.

As for the Rookie of the Year voting, the James Wiseman pick was a big swing and a miss.  Wiseman underperformed expectations relative to his regular season performance.  LaMelo Ball looks to be the clear favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award right now, and Tyrese Haliburton and Anthony Edwards also are solid contenders for that award, as well. As of right now, LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards would still make our All-Rookie first team, and Tyrese Haliburton would also get bumped up from the second team to the All-Rookie first team. We have three players that were initially projected to be on the All-Rookie first and second teams to still make those teams, but the other seven are not projected by us to get our votes for those teams.

In the sixth man of the year award voting, we have the Lakers’ Montrezl Harrell projected to still finish in the top 3 of that voting, but it seems clear that Utah Jazz’s Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson would both be well deserving to win the 6th Man of the Year award if the vote were to be held today.

As for our picks for the All-NBA First Team, Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo still would project to be on that team.  Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard, and Kawhi Leonard would get bumped up from the second team to the first team.   Also, Stephen Curry would likely be on our All-NBA First Team as well.

As for the Western Conference All-Stars, 9 of them ended up making the All-Star team in the West, James Harden made the All-Star team in the East, and only Jamal Murray and Brandon Ingram ended up missing the 2021 All-Star game. As for the three alternates, all three of them that we had picked (Chris Paul, Zion Williamson, and Rudy Gobert) ended up becoming All-Stars in the West.

For the Eastern Conference All-Stars, we correctly picked 7 of the players from our preseason picks to make that team.  On the other hand, neither Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, Russell Westbrook, Bam Adebayo, nor Pascal Siakam made the team. Also, none of the three alternates in the East (Kemba Walker, Trae Young, and Khris Middleton) we chose ended up making the 2021 All-Star teams.

The playoffs are still yet to happen, and about tomorrow or so, we will post our staff’s NBA regular season award picks. I haven’t decided who I will predict to win the playoffs, and that could be another post to read in a few days. Stay tuned for that, as that should be an interesting one to read.

Thank you for reading.

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