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A new era of superstars and more talking points ahead of the NBA tip-off

A preview of the 2020-21 season, which gets underway tonight.

FRESH OFF THE success that was their “bubble” in Florida, the NBA season returns tonight with a 72-game sprint for the post-season.

Here are the five most pressing questions as the league looks to navigate playing out a season in home arenas during a global pandemic.

timberwolves-mavericks-basketball Luka Doncic in possession for Dallas Mavericks. Source: Tony Gutierrez

Will there be a first-time MVP?

LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) is now 35, while previous regular-season MVPs like Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets) and Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors) have been cursed with injuries over the last 12 months.

The league is transitioning to a new era of superstars, and this may well be the year when somebody wins the award for the first time.

There are a number of potential candidates, although in the case of generational talent Anthony Davis, playing alongside James for the Lakers likely hinders his case.

The trendy pick at the moment is Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks, who is entering his third season and is already one of the best players in the league.

With averages of 28 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists last season, the Mavericks spent the off-season sacrificing some of their scoring punch, shipping out guys like Seth Curry, in favour of a more solid defensive base – which should suit Doncic, who can run an offence alone and has already clearly shown he can make all around him better.

Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics comes in as a dark horse, but it is not all about the younger guys. Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off signing the largest contract in league history, returns as the reigning two-time MVP for a reason, and he will be hoping to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to a championship this time out.

One other guy to keep an eye on is Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers), who may be the best point-guard in the league at this point.

nba-preseason-san-antonio-spurs-at-houston-rockets Houston, we have a problem: James Harden. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Where will James Harden go?

The NBA is always looking towards the future, which means the next disgruntled superstar is never far from making it known that they are unhappy in their current situation.

This off-season has been no different, with James Harden seemingly desperate to leave the Houston Rockets. This despite the franchise doing all they could to put superstar-level talent around him to try and win.

Past co-stars have included Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, while close friend and triple-double machine Russell Westbrook, who was only brought in last summer, was shipped off to the Washington Wizards a number of weeks ago.

This inability to mesh with high-level talent does not reflect well on Harden, and reporting late for training camp having been spotted in Atlanta and Las Vegas did not help matters either.

Westbrook had among the biggest contracts in the league (making an eye-watering $41 million this season), so the only way to get him out of town was to take back a similarly large deal.

Which is why John Wall, having not played in two plus years, is now in Houston, and it is unclear how much he will contribute to winning basketball.

Worth noting is the departure of former General Manager Daryl Morey from the Rockets earlier this year. Morey is among the best GMs in the league and was quickly snapped up by the Philadelphia 76ers. His ability to creatively make contenders around Harden while operating under the salary cap was a work of art at times.

It is no surprise that the 76ers are among the front-runners to trade for Harden, although what they would have to give up to acquire him would be huge and likely include young star Ben Simmons.

Other destinations include the Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat, but have the antics of Harden to this point soured his reputation around the league?

nba-playoffs-milwaukee-bucks-at-orlando-magic Orlando Magic's Markelle Fultz. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Who will make the leap?

It happens every year – one player coming from out of nowhere to take a significant leap forward and force themselves into the conversation as a top-25 player in the NBA and a potential All-Star.

Previous individuals who have done this in recent seasons include Pascal Siakam (Toronto Raptors), Victor Oladipo (Indiana Pacers) and Kawhi Leonard (then with the San Antonio Spurs).

Last year it was the turn of Bam Adebayo of the Heat, going from a talented and energetic big man to the second-best player on a finals team.

Coming into this season, there are a few candidates who could be about to break out in a big way. Doncic gets spoken about in this category, but the truth is he has already arrived. The leap he is about to make towards being the MVP of the entire league is a level above what is going on here.

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De’Aaron Fox of the Sacramento Kings is one such guy, a player who has already averaged 21.1 points and 6.8 assists in the league but who clearly has a couple more levels to get to.

Devin Booker (Phoenix Suns) is already the best player on his team and has been an All-Star. But as a result of playing in a smaller market, and having not yet appeared in the play-offs through his first five years in the league, he continues to be overlooked.

This despite once scoring 70 points, the most in Suns franchise history, in a game against the Boston Celtics. Alongside the vetetan point-guard Paul, a return to the post-season while upping his scoring production another level would certainly qualify him here.

Ja Mortant (Memphis Grizzlies) and Trae Young (Atlanta Hawks) are both in the conversation, but if you want to really think outside the box, look to Markelle Fultz (Orlando Magic) and Davis Bertans (Wizards).

lakers-suns-basketball Will it be a good season for Devin Booker and Phoenix Suns? Source: Matt York

Which team will underachieve?

There are only so many play-off spots up for grabs, and with the league as competitive as ever, that is a problem for the organisations with designs on making some noise later in the year.

The shortened, 72-game format should ensure more of a sprint as well. For years the Western Conference was clearly the stronger of the two conferences, but the East has levelled the competition in the last couple of years.

In the West, it is hard not to look at the Suns and think they may be forced out of the top eight teams that make the play-offs once again. After all, they went a perfect 8-0 in the NBA’s bubble in Florida a few months back, the only organisation to do so, and it still wasn’t enough to make the play-offs. Booker, Paul and young centre DeAndre Ayton is a nice place to start, but other teams simply have more about them.

Should the Suns grab a spot in the play-offs, it will probably be at the expense of the Warriors or the New Orleans Pelicans. The Warriors will sadly be missing Klay Thompson for all of this season through injury, having already had him sit out for the entirety of last year, but with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and second overall pick in the NBA draft James Wiseman, will believe they can make the post-season.

The Pelicans have all the young talent you could ask for, headlined by Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, who was the league’s Most Improved Player award winner, and a first-time All-Star, last year. Their need to make the post-season is less pressing as their future looks extremely bright.

The Eastern Conference is a slightly different story, with the team who takes the eighth seed likely to be among the “best of the rest” there.

The 76ers, who finished a disappointing sixth seed last time out, will once again have their work cut out to make much of a noise. With Simmons, Joel Embiid, GM Morey and new head coach Doc Rivers in place though, they are firmly on the clock to be competitive.

Right now, however, the Bucks, Celtics, Heat, Nets and even Raptors look like they will finish above them.

hornets-magic-basketball LaMelo Ball in action for Charlotte Hornets during a pre-season game against Orlando Magic. Source: Matt Stamey

Who will win Rookie of the Year?

It has been mentioned many times already, but the 2020 group of rookies entering the league was never thought of as a particularly strong one.

Yet despite this, there are still a couple of guys who are already front-runners to win the award for Rookie of the Year. It starts with LaMelo Ball of the Charlotte Hornets, the third overall pick who has had quite the winding road to get to this point.

The younger brother of Lonzo Ball, who plays with the Pelicans, and the son of the outspoken LaVar Ball, LaMelo went from being a top high school player with Chino Hills, to turning professional and ending up in Lithuania. That didn’t quite go to plan, but a move to the Illawarra Hawks in Australia brought more success. Ball looked comfortable, with his dazzling passing often on full display.

Despite a failed attempt to then buy the team, Ball declared for the draft and was seen as a mystery by many – the gap between being a success and a complete bust a huge one.

Through a couple of pre-season games, however, Ball looks to have hit the ground running and should be there or thereabouts when the award is given out in 2021.

Wiseman will likely start at centre for the Warriors, giving him the national exposure and platform to make a run for the hardware himself.

First overall pick Anthony Edwards comes in behind both, as playing for the Minnesota Timberwolves he will neither get the exposure nor the touches ahead of Karl Anthony-Towns and D’Angelo Russell to make fans sit up and take notice.

Somebody who may swoop in to steal the award is Cole Anthony of the Magic. A point-guard from New York, a place famous for breeding them, and the son of former NBA player Greg Anthony, he has led all rookies in scoring in the pre-season (55 points), and is tied with Ball for assists (15) too.

Once thought of as the best high school player in the nation, it is clear he has a chip on his shoulder, having slipped all the way to 15th on draft night.

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

About the author:

Luke Duffy

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