We were fortunate enough to follow a complete and exciting regular season of basketball without much turbulence due to the pandemic. With a shortened schedule, limited preseason, and rushed restart, fans got to enjoy five months of highly competitive competition.
An extended layoff, nine months as opposed to six, enabled rebuilding teams not invited the Bubble to attack from the jump with angst and high energy, including the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks who both returned to the postseason. A brief summer stint dreaded with trouble opened the door for early-exit teams to come back even stronger, like the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz who both finished in first place after losing in the First Round the year prior. The longest season in league history created durability obstacles for teams that made it to the pinnacle, notably the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat who tumbled down their conferences due to injuries.
Without a real training camp, Summer League tournament, and preseason stretch, this year’s class of rookies had more pressure than ever before, yet several of them including LaMelo Ball and Anthony Edwards showed they were ready for the big time. With the pandemic creating financial concerns and an unpredictable future, several stars were eager to sign extensions to guarantee their security, including Jayson Tatum and De’Aaron Fox who made huge leaps for their franchises. The shortest season in recent memory created urgency among superstars to dominate in the final stretch, famously Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook who carried their teams to the playoff picture.
Despite the introduction of the Play-In Tournament, keeping 20 of the 30 teams alive for the title at the season’s end, many teams still fell short and missed the postseason outright. A handful had actually made the prior year’s playoffs and took significant steps back as an organization. Others threw this year and its unpredictable nature away as a chance to evaluate their talent pool. A few started finding their footing too late but set themselves up for a better campaign.
Let’s dive into the current state of the lottery teams, the ten that missed the playoffs altogether, and the four that were sent home in the Play-In Tournament. From cornerstones to role players to the future of the organization, here are my biggest questions:
Golden State Warriors (39-33) – Can Andrew Wiggins take another step as a scorer?
The Warriors soared in the second half of the season yet shockingly dropped both Play-In games to miss the cut. It was still a terrific year as Stephen Curry went nuclear and returned to MVP-form 32.0/5.8/5.5), Draymond Green revived himself as a two-way force (8.9 APG, 1.7 SPG), and the young core came alive to help form a top-5 defense.
However, if the Warriors are going to return to real title contention, they’ll need Andrew Wiggins to become a legitimate scoring threat.
He was impressive as a stand-alone shooter (38% 3PT) and slashing scorer (18.6 on 48% FG), but the question is whether he can create his own shot consistently and takeover when Curry is cold or double-teamed. The team doesn’t expect Klay Thompson to play with the same burst he once did, and they know James Wiseman is years away from being an offensive juggernaut, so the former Rookie of the Year will need to become the dangerous weapon he’s shown he can be in years past.
Andrew Wiggins’ capacity to become an elite scorer will set the Warriors’ ceiling and determine whether they can make another run.
Indiana Pacers (34-38) – Can they form a formidable bench unit?
Despite a shaky first half ravaged by injuries, the Pacers bounced back and made a really good effort to make the postseason. Domantas Sabonis had a career playmaking year (6.7 APG), Malcolm Brogdon became a prolific scorer (21.2 PPG), Myles Turner was on-pace to lead the league in blocks (3.4 BPG), and Caris LeVert made his debut as the future of the franchise.
However, if the Pacers are going to be a recurring playoff team, they’ll need a more balanced and experienced bench unit.
There were some gems in the reserves this year like T.J. McConnell and Jeremy Lamb, but the question is whether management can bring in some size and some veterans to fully support the primed starting cast. The game plan of sharing the ball and sharpshooting fairs okay, yet to really compete with postseason hopefuls, they’ll need more than a mediocre defense and more intelligence to win in crunch time.
Management’s ability to bring in physically and mentally tough players will determine whether the Pacers actually have a window to compete.
San Antonio Spurs (33-39) – Can Keldon Johnson make another leap towards stardom?
The Spurs wouldn’t back down for most of the year, until the last stretch of the season where their defense imploded. It was a decent year in terms of development thanks to the brilliance of Gregg Popovich and the excellence of DeMar DeRozan, who helped Dejounte Murray (15.7 PPG), Lonnie Walker (11.2 PPG), and Jakob Poeltl (1.8 BPG) emerge into foundational pieces.
However, if the Spurs are going to exit purgatory anytime soon, they’ll need Keldon Johnson to make another leap towards stardom.
It’s unlikely San Antonio will embrace a full rebuild and have the luxury of landing some top prospects in the draft, so the question is whether 21-year-old Keldon Johnson can become a legitimate cornerstone and help lift up the franchise. He had an awesome first few months which got the team rolling until it became clear they didn’t have enough talent, so for them to move forward as their veterans start to age, they’ll need their best prospect to take on a bigger role.
Keldon Johnson’s capacity to make a leap in his third pro season will determine whether the Spurs can avoid being stuck or trending downward.
Charlotte Hornets (33-39) – Can they find a solid center?
It was an electric year for “Buzz City” with the promise of the playoffs, except some injuries to star players halted their momentum late in the year. Nonetheless, the team got to celebrate the sensational play of rookie LaMelo Ball (15.7/6.1/5.9), the emphatic scoring of Terry Rozier (20.4), the resurgence of former All-Star Gordon Hayward (19.6/4.1/5.9), and the excellent stretches of several young players.
However, if the Hornets are going to capitalize in the short-term with many good players on team-friendly contracts, they’ll need to bring in a staple for the paint.
The underwhelming Bismack Biyombo and the horrifically-priced Cody Zeller are finally coming off the books this summer, so the question is whether management can sign or trade for a high-impact big man. Teams with great young cores like Atlanta, Cleveland, and New Orleans all acquired their missing piece and have set themselves up for a brighter future, so Charlotte will need to do the same while the stars are still aligned for them.
The front office’s ability to find this one last element will determine whether they can make the playoffs next year.
New Orleans Pelicans (31-41) – Is Lonzo Ball a franchise player?
Even with nearly the exact same record as the year before, the Pelicans organization had to feel much better at the season’s end. Zion Williamson stayed healthy pretty much all year and absolutely pummeled his way to the All-Star game (27.0/7.2/3.7), Brandon Ingram showed last year wasn’t a fluke and he could play well alongside another star (23.8/4.9/4.9), and a flurry of role players made their mark as franchise pieces moving forward.
However, before the Pelicans begin thinking about the playoffs, they’ll need to decide what to do with Lonzo Ball.
The point guard has had a strange first four years with little improvement and offensive consistency, so the question is whether the front office wants him to be their lead playmaker of the future or wants to use that salary elsewhere. He posted a decent 3-point percentage (38% on 8.3 3PA) and elevated his scoring output (14.6 PPG), yet he keeps flip-flopping between being a shooter or a facilitator and it’s disrupting the flow of the offense with two All-Stars, so management needs to decide if they want to invest in him to remain a focal point of their offense.
The front office’s decision on Lonzo Ball this summer will determine the fate of the franchise, whether they commit to developing him and live with the results or use cap space to try and build a winner with their young cornerstones.
Sacramento Kings (31-41) – Can Marvin Bagley III revive his potential?
The Kings bet all their chips on the offensive side of the ball; they finished the season with the exact same record as the year prior and one of the worst defenses in NBA history. The year would’ve been a huge disappointment had it not been for De’Aaron Fox’s All-Star caliber play (25.2/7.2), Richaun Holmes’ ascent in the paint (8.3 RPG, 1.6 BPG), and the great first showing from rookie Tyrese Haliburton (13.0 PPG, 5.3 APG, 41% 3PT).
However, if the Kings are going to move anywhere closer to the playoff picture, they’ll first need Marvin Bagley III to step up.
The recent second overall pick, selected before the likes of Luka Doncic and Trae Young, has amazingly shown zero progression in his first three professional seasons (14 PPG, 7 RPG in 25 MPG for three straight years), so the question is whether he’s going to get any better and give the Kings some sort of direction. He’s still only 22-years-old and can’t really be defined as “bad” considering his production, but he is playing nowhere near his ceiling as a prospect and has proven he’s not very durable, so he needs a strong showing in the contract year to establish himself as a frontcourt star.
Marvin Bagley III’s capacity to revive his potential will determine whether Sacramento has a playoff chance anytime soon.
Chicago Bulls (31-41) – Can they find the right wings?
Lots of turnover from top to bottom headlined the Bulls season, and despite a brutal second-half slide, they ended the year with many positives. Zach Lavine firmly positioned himself as the franchise’s leading star (27.4/4.9/5.0), Coby White proved he could be a true facilitator (2.7 to 4.8 APG), Patrick Williams was exactly the two-way player he was drafted to be, and the team landed All-Star center Nikola Vucevic at the trade deadline to create a dynamic inside-out punch.
However, if the Bulls want to win more with their collection of talent, they’ll need to find wings that can elevate their offense.
Management has done a terrific job assembling a crop of offensive-minded guards and finding frontcourt players that provide some scoring while helping out on the defensive end, so the question is whether they can put it all together with the support of sharpshooting and perimeter-defending wings. The team has experimented with prospects, former lottery picks, and a few veterans who know how to space the floor, but there’s clearly a hole that needs to be filled by more lethal and stout perimeter players, so management will need to find those pieces whether through another trade or within free agency.
The front office’s capacity to find the right wings to start at small forward and fill out the rotation will determine whether Chicago’s core has the makeup of a winner.
Part II coming soon…