The NBA season will resume tonight after a brief hiatus for the All-Star game. Apparently, most of the players went to Miami to celebrate. We probably would, too. The second half fo this year should be a good one with a handful of legitimate championship contenders already separating themselves from the pack and some preseason favorites needing to make up a lot of ground if they want to live up to expectations.
We here at The Big Lead like basketball and like pretending we are omniscient, so thus, without further ado, here are our boldest predictions for the second half of the 2020-21 NBA season.
Nikola Jokic Emerges as MVP Frontrunner
The NBA MVP race will be tighter than expected with LeBron James' failure to pull ahead from the pack in the absence of Anthony Davis as he and the Los Angeles Lakers stumbled a bit just before the All-Star break. The King could very well flip the switch and be overwhelmingly great down the stretch, as we've seen time and time again, but that feels less likely this season than others given the wear-and-tear he's experienced over the last nine months and the fact that he always saves his best for the playoffs.
Enter Nikola Jokic. The big Serbian center has the statistics to support winning the league's most coveted regular-season trophy, averaging 27.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 8.6 assists per game while shooting 56 percent from the field. He also has a handful of silly statlines through 36 games this year, already recording a 50-point outing and three 40-point outings and eight games with 12 or more assists, including one 18-assist performance. The issue is that Denver is only sixth in the Western Conference at 21-15. Jokic will continue to play at an MVP level and the wins will begin to come in bunches as Denver finishes in the third seed in the West and will boast their first NBA MVP ever. -- Liam McKeone
Brad Stevens and the Celtics Will Part Ways
Brad Stevens is a highly-respected coach who has done some really good things in Boston. But this season, the Celtics have three All-Star-caliber players on their roster and were 19-17 in the first half. That's simply not good enough. Stevens is in his eighth season in Boston and the message may have just worn thin. That happens. But with a star player in Jayson Tatum, an emerging star in Jaylen Brown and a four-time All-Star in Kemba Walker, this has been an unacceptable season.
At one point Boston lost six of eight and eight of 11 before turning it around with a four-game winning streak before the break. After an 8-3 start, they finished the first half 11-14 despite all that talent. Stevens has taken the Celtics to the conference finals three times but has yet to get them over the hump. If he struggles in the second half, expect he and Danny Ainge to sit down and discuss a buyout.
It's worth noting a fairly large job in Stevens' home state may also be coming open soon, so he could negotiate himself into an extremely soft landing. -- Ryan Phillips
The Lakers Will Go on a Five-Game Losing Streak
Los Angeles has been in a lower gear this season, as can be expected with a quick turnaround and the best two-man-ball center in the league Anthony Davis sidelined with an injury. Everyone assumes they'll turn it on in time for the playoffs, even if that includes a road series. LeBron James does have that little Tom Izzo in him that tends to peak at exactly the right time perennially, so betting against him seems dangerous. Still, it's possible Davis takes some time to get back to his necessary level of physicality and the offense goes disjointed against a deep and hungry Western Conference. Plus, the are currently on a two-game skid with a six-game road trip looming at the end of the month. -- Kyle Koster
Zion Williamson Will Tie or Beat Bradley Beal's Season-High 60 Points in a Game
Zion Williamson has emerged as a problem this season. Healthy and huge, Williamson is averaging 25.6 points per game this season and he's shooting 61.4 percent from the field on 16 attempts a game. That's the fifth-best percentage in the league. No one else in the top 10 is taking more than 11 shots a game. There was a two week stretch in February where he scored 31 or more points five times. In those games he took 15, 16, 18, 18 and 26 shots. There is going to be a night - at least one night - where he shoots something like 24 of 28 from the field. He's going to get 60 and tie Bradley Beal for the most points in a game this season. If he hits a couple threes, he might break it. -- Stephen Douglas
The New York Knicks Come Within a Game of the Eastern Conference Finals
If the season ended today, New Yorkers would fall over each other for the honor of raising an over-.500 banner from the rafters at Madison Square Garden. The team is playing with borrowed money right now, which tends to be a good recipe for an otherwise-flawed team to flirt with advancing a shocking distance in the postseason. They are likely to play either Milwaukee or Boston in the first round and thus far the Knicks have notched 20- and 30-point victories over each respectively. Then, is it inconceivable they find themselves in a regional streetfight with a Philadelphia team playing with the heavy pressure of finally completing the process? The Eastern Conference is exceptionally weak so how do we know if one of the teams is just riding inferior competition? We should all root for this scenario because what a media moment it'll be. -- Kyle Koster
The New York Knicks Will Miss the Playoffs
It turns out the regular season does not end today. That means there is plenty of time for New York to slip all the way out of the playoff picture. Heading into the second half of the season, just 2.5 games separate the 5th-place Knicks and the 11th-place Atlanta Hawks. Everyone is very excited about the Knicks, but they're just a .500 team. It is still a nice story. There should still be hope. And this isn't to say they will completely fall apart. They can still basically be a .500 team, play the same level of basketball and end up on the outside looking in. It would still be their best season since '13-'14. Julius Randle is still an All-Star on the way up. It's okay to still be excited. This is just not the season. -- Stephen Douglas
The Rockets Finish as the Worst Team in the West
The Houston Rockets attempted to keep some semblance of competitiveness this season despite both Russell Westbrook and James Harden forcing trades out of town. They brought in John Wall and Victor Oladipo to do that. Wall, though, is a shell of his former self and Oladipo is just counting down the days until he can hit free agency after reportedly turning down a max contract extension from Houston. All of it has resulted in Houston quietly being one of the worst teams in the NBA, rocking an 11-23 record and the 13th spot in the West.
The reason the Rockets wanted to avoid tanking outright is that they are currently mired in a complicated 2021 draft pick situation. They will have to give up their pick if it finishes lower in the order than either the Thunder or the Heat's picks. But, according to RealGM, if the Rockets end up with a top-four pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, they can keep their pick. So they have to be bad, not just mediocre or pretty bad, to make tanking a worthwhile endeavor. With Christian Wood hurt and Oladipo looking to leave, my bet is they sell everything that isn't nailed down by the March 25 deadline and let Wall lead this team deep into the lottery. They're only four wins ahead of the Timberwolves for the worst record in the West, and Minnesota didn't have Karl-Anthony Towns for the vast majority of their first half, so it's reasonable to assume they will win a few more games here and there. The Rockets will tank, and they will tank hard. -- Liam McKeone
The Lakers Won't Make a High-Profile Addition
The Lakers are attempting to defend their brilliant title run from the NBA's Orlando bubble and have struggled of late. While they've been connected to every potential trade piece and will continue to be matched with any high-profile buyout candidates, I don't think they'll make a big addition. The hope for the Lakers has to be getting Davis back healthy. That's the only way they repeat as champions. No addition out there will make up for the loss of Davis and Rob Pelinka isn't about to trade a piece like Talen Horton-Tucker for a rental or someone who will give the team future salary cap headaches.
On paper, the Lakers have a far better roster than they did down the stretch in 2020. They have far more balance, athleticism, versatility and can shoot it at a higher level. They could add a low-profile rim protector, but don't expect anything dramatic. Getting Davis back is the entire key to the season. -- Ryan Phillips