What Will The NBA Look Like In 2020?
The NBA has been in full swing for a few weeks now, but it's still too early to make serious conclusions about most of the teams around the league. So instead of worrying about small sample size, let's look at the bigger picture. This is a thought exercise. Imagine an NBA addict goes into a coma tomorrow, and then wakes up in November 2020. What would that person ask about basketball? What would we tell them?
Today, The Crossover's writers transport themselves to the future and answer all the important questions. Here are 20 predictions for 2020.
(Written by Andrew Sharp, Ben Golliver, Rob Mahoney, Jeremy Woo, Rohan Nadkarni, DeAntae Prince, Dan Gartland, Mitch Goldich and Jarrel Harris).
Is LeBron still the best player in the world?
NOPE. By any objective measure—including the last three Finals—Kevin Durant is the best player in the world. Anthony Davis and Steph Curry are battling for No. 2. LeBron is still good enough to scare people, but right now, he's not even the best player in the East. Giannis Antetokounmpo is putting up 27, 12, and 8 every night. It's ridiculous.*
(* Don't worry, LeBron's still made the Finals the past four years. 2020's not that crazy.) — A.S.
What happened to the Warriors?
Although Steph Curry and Kevin Durant fell short in their first trip to the Finals together, vanquished again by LeBron James in another seven-game classic, an off–season spent investing in hand transplants for Zaza Pachulia and months of rigorous drill work for JaVale McGee finally produced a title in 2018. Durant memorably clutched the basketball as confetti fell around him following his first championship, scaling the podium to receive Finals MVP honors. “Russ, I’m still thinking of you,” Durant said from the podium as he received his first Finals MVP trophy, although ESPN.com’s Royce Young tweeted shortly thereafter that Russell Westbrook still hadn’t replied to any of Durant’s 4,731 apology text messages. Another title followed in 2019 and the Dubs now look primed to pull of the NBA's first three-peat since the Kobe/Shaq Lakers. — B.G.
What team does Russ play for?
The Heat. He spent two more years in OKC after KD left. The first was so, so good. He took the Thunder to the playoffs as a No. 8 seed and pushed KD and the Warriors to seven games. It was one of the craziest series we've ever seen. But the next year was brutal, they wound up as the No. 10 seed, and by the end, everyone knew Russ had to go somewhere else. He had a player option in 2018, and he used it to go play with Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, and Jayson Tatum in Miami. It was good team, and then they got Klay Thompson the following summer. Now, we're starring down a potential Finals matchup for the ages. Russ vs. KD and Klay vs. Steph for seven games? I just passed out. — A.S.
Did “The Process” work?
The Sixers are a rising Eastern Conference playoff team. Joel Embiid is healthy and now on a max deal. He’s won Defensive Player of the Year, and put on an entertaining show in the Three-Point Contest, even though he didn’t win. Ben Simmons is a stud, forming a 1-2 punch ascending into true title contention as the franchise essentially waited out LeBron’s prime. The Process has worked and Sam Hinkie has earned begrudging respect, even from many former critics. He is overseeing a new rebuilding project, and the Sixers even swap him a second round pick for old times’ sake. — M.G.
Who’s the best big man in basketball?
Full credit to former Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who shocked observers by purchasing the Timberwolves the day after the Clippers eliminated Minnesota from the 2019 Western Conference semifinals. “I couldn’t stand seeing Steve Ballmer so happy and Karl-Anthony Towns so sad,” Zuckerberg said during his introductory press conference. “It was worth $3.5 billion to me, easily, to see if I could flip that script and open a new era of NBA basketball.”
Pledging to take the Timberwolves “Light years beyond light years,” Zuckerberg poached Mike D’Antoni from the Rockets over the summer, demanding that Towns be utilized as a point-center, full-time, in the “Seven Seconds or Less” framework. Towns, 25, is coming off his long-anticipated first MVP selection and a franchise-record 60-win season, but D’Antoni’s arrival has been a revelation, as he’s averaged 27 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists through 10 games. “He can dribble, he makes good decisions, he can shoot it off the bounce and he can go by you,” D’Antoni told reporters before Towns’s fifth triple double in less than three weeks. “How many centers can stay with him end-to-end and from the three-point line to the rim? Why would I ever start a possession with the ball in anyone else’s hands?”
Although ABC commentator Mark Jackson has decried the approach, calling it “bad for the game because not every 7-footer in high school should dribble,” copycat coaches are already experimenting with the new strategy at the high school and college ranks. — B.G.
How many titles has Brad Stevens won?
Zero. The Celtics never landed that one, transformative player and Danny Ainge is still swimming in assets. Even though Stevens is one of the most respected coaches in the league, he was never able to make up significant ground and overcome the steep odds of winning a title. Boston has a nice talent base. What it lacks is the kind of singular talent (or even transformative prospect) that could elevate the C's into a potential favorite. Boston is competitive, but even a smart coach with capable players can fall short of the league's upper echelon. — R.M.
What do jerseys look like?
I’m not sure how I feel about the new Nike jerseys introduced this season. On one hand, the technology is so advanced that players literally don’t sweat anymore. It’s amazing how far moisture wicking has come in the last few years. On the other hand, where does all the sweat go? This could be our greatest environmental crisis since Florida slipped underwater. Also, how much sleeker can these jerseys get? Have you tried wearing an NBA uniform recently? It’s like wearing a wetsuit made out of tar. And the ads are kind of an eyesore, though at least Nets games remind me to get a refill on beard oil. — R.N.
Are the Knicks still a dumpster fire?
Sort of. Kristaps Porzingis is the Dirk-meets-KG “unicorn” Knicks fans always thought he’d be (well, ignoring their lack of faith on draft night). He averages 20 and 10, while protecting the rim adequately and flashing impressive range. But New York is up against the cap thanks to James Dolan’s insistence to re-up an aging Carmelo Anthony in 2019 and sign a slightly less aging Chris Paul to a big deal the year before. Dolan has always loved stars in decline.
To alleviate the cap constraints a bit, the Knicks have taken to using draft picks to unload some of their more unseemly contracts, leading to a dearth of young talent not seen in these parts since the Landry Fields days.
So yeah, they’re about a .500 team fighting for a playoff spot every year. But at least JD & the Straight Shot finally made it big. — D.G.
Do people still use NBA Twitter?
Hell yeah. Twitter was so toxic and miserable that everyone but about 3,000 hardcore basketball fans abandoned it halfway through 2018. Now NBA Twitter is the only Twitter that exists. It's much better. — A.S.
Are the Spurs still winning 50 games every year?
Absolutely. Becky Hammon took over for Popovich in 2018, and Kawhi Leonard has been an MVP candidate every year since 2015. The LaMarcus Aldridge situation is still pretty weird, but Dejounte Murray is a borderline All-Star. They're right back in the mix with the Wolves and Warriors in the West, and this past summer they got Marc Gasol. You didn't think the most Spurs-tastic player in the league would go his entire career without playing for the Spurs, did you? You know that's why they signed Pau in 2016, right? — A.S.
Who is on Team USA in 2020?
The roster was stacked over the summer, per usual, and had no problem cruising to another gold medal. Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry (in his first Olympics!), Kyrie Irving, James Harden, D’Angelo Russell, Devin Booker, Myles Turner, Jabari Parker, and Team USA mainstay Carmelo Anthony, who claimed his fourth gold. — R.M.
What will the sneaker scene look like?
We are years removed from when Nike released two pairs of auto-lacing sneakers—the Nike Mag from Back to the Future II and the Nike HyperAdapt 1.0. Russell Westbrook and Jordan Brand changed the game after introducing the Air Jordan XXXV auto-lacing sneaker; which became the first performance model with the feature.
The signature lifestyle sneaker market has blown up. As sneaker culture and the “cozy boy” movement evolved, more brands offered less signature on court models. Kanye West has led adidas basketball to new heights after designing sneakers for every player on the three stripes roster.
Nike caved in and finally named Kobe Bryant their lead designer and gave him a cool title to go with it “Senior Innovator of the Dark Side.” While LeBron James has entered the Michael Jordan conversation when it comes to sneaker legacies. Under Armour and Stephen Curry enjoyed success with the Curry 4 and 5 after a couple years of getting mocked on social media… but fans have resurrected the 3–1 chants out of boredom. — J.H.
Will Anthony Davis and Boogie still be trapped?
The NBA’s two biggest stranded stars are (almost) no longer mired in the throes of mediocrity, for fear not, free agency has come and gone. The Kings tried everything to keep DeMarcus Cousins in place—more modern art installations, flowers, another heavy-handed run at John Calipari—and then did everything to trade him, but Sacramento never backed down on the sticker price and other teams decided to wait it out. Boogie hit free agency in the summer of 2018 and promptly signed with the Lakers, where he got over past beefs thanks to a recruiting tour de force by Luke Walton and player/assistant Nick Young.
As for Davis, well, he’s 27 and in the last year of his contract with the Pelicans. Nope, still not a free agent. New Orleans GM Andre Miller has tried everything, but they haven’t been back to the playoffs since 2014. Suitors are lining up for Davis, who’s managed to stay healthy, made the All-Star game every year and made an appearance on Sesame Street discussing unibrow self-confidence with Bert and Ernie. And hey: the to-be-named Las Vegas expansion team led by Calipari looks like a serious option. — J.W.
What's the biggest off-the-court controversy?
Technology is still a few years away from making the biometric testing issue ESPN’s Pablo Torre wrote about in 2014 really explode. In the meantime, the biggest off-court issue facing the NBA is one they’ve dealt with for years—marijuana.
California and Massachusetts voted in 2016 to legalize recreational marijuana use, bringing the number of NBA teams in weed-friendly states to eight. After legalization efforts in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, North Carolina and Arizona, that number now stands at 15.
The NBA has long had one of the more lenient stances on marijuana in pro sports, but the changing tide is putting pressure on the league to drop pot from the banned substances list. If union head J.R. Smith gets his way, NBA players won’t have to confine their toking to the off–season. — D.G.
Did the Timberwolves “make” it?
The Timberwolves are dope, and their playoff clashes with the aging Warriors have been legendary. Game 7 of the 2010 conference finals was like the climactic scene of every great boxing movie, without the fear of paralysis or the constant shots of a worried girlfriend/family member watching on TV. I really wonder how Minny would have done if they hadn’t traded Andrew Wiggins, though. The move was obviously controversial at the time—how else do you explain those massive summer ratings for Undisputed? The debate over the trade will only grow larger after it failed to vault the Wolves into the Finals. — R.N.
Has basketball returned to Seattle?
Not yet, but the plans are in place for the NBA’s return to Seattle. There’s still plenty left to work out in terms of league logistics (the biggest: move a team to Seattle or create a new one?), but the vision is there and the facilities are beginning to materialize. Hang in there, Sonics faithful. You’re almost home. — R.M.
Are robots refereeing games?
No, thankfully. It was a huge relief when owners voted against installing robot referees over the summer. First of all, too many star players still want to argue with human refs. Have you seen the power LeBron James holds over officials? He expects them to explain calls to him. No one wants to try to reason with a robot, which is not capable of actual human emotion. My phone still can’t recognize my voice commands, so we’re nowhere near ready to let A.I. (the science kind) officiate a game. Also, have you ever watched a sci-fi movie?! Literally every single time robots replace humans it ends with the destruction of our race. No good comes from hanging with robots. But you know who they should replace with robots? Owners. We still don’t need owners. — R.N.
How good are the Lakers?
The Lakers were finally able to blossom after Kobe Bryant's overdue retirement. The developmental curves of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram were directly linked to Bryant’s decision to leave the limelight and enjoy fatherhood and tech ventures. Russell turned himself into an All-Star point guard, using his sharp court vision and tight handle to terrorize NBA offenses. Randle became the ultimate do-everything big, running in transition, putting the ball on the floor and posting smaller opponents. And Ingram, the real prize of the group, made good on his all-world ability and almost lived down those early KD comparisons.
This group, coupled with Jordan Clarkson and a few solid veteran additions, helped build the foundation that lured DeMarcus Cousins to Los Angeles and turned a growing movement into an immovable force. Smack-dab in the middle of his prime, Cousins joined the Lakers at the right time. Former juggernauts have slowed down and the Lakers are primed for their first title run since Bryant and Pau Gasol led them to a championship in 2010. That 10-year wait was well worth it for Lakers fans, as this team shows no signs of slowing down over the next decade. — D.P.
Do NBA teams still go to the White House?
The NBA experienced eight joyous years with a basketball-crazed president whose morals and values aligned with the league's players. Things took a swift turn when Barack Obama left office in 2017 and ceded power to Donald Trump, whose campaign ran counter to everything the NBA has stood for as one of the country’s most inclusive leagues.
Before Trump ever entered office, questions swirled about whether NBA champions would continue to visit The White House on a yearly basis. Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich and LeBron James all said their peace on the issue to varying degrees, setting the tone for the NBA at large. Their leadership, along with the support of NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA president Michele Roberts, helped band NBA teams together to create a uniform protest throughout Trump’s four-year presidency. He will leave office in January 2021, and the NBA couldn’t be more excited to return to Washington to shake President-elect Mark Cuban’s hand. — D.P.
What do the record books look like?
Over the last 18 months, LeBron James moved past both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to claim the No. 3 spot on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Who could forget when he posterized Harry Giles to move past Jordan and then hit a step-back game-winner over Michael Porter to top Bryant? For the first time in the 16 years since Karl Malone retired, it’s time for The Mailman to truly sweat about his spot at No. 2 behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. James, never known as a pure scorer, nevertheless finds himself closing in on Malone and, possibly, Abdul-Jabbar thanks to his consistency and absurd health. He enters the 2020-21 season with more than 34,000 points, and he should claim the No. 1 spot if he can just hang on for three more years. Yes, that’s asking a lot of James, but he has a clear incentive to play out his twilight: His son, LeBron Jr., is a highly-touted high school star, and James Sr. has stated repeatedly this year that he wants to become the NBA’s version of the Ken Griffey father/son duo.
Meanwhile, James has also surpassed 9,000 career assists, moving him into the NBA’s all-time top 10 and making him the only player in history to rank in the top 10 in both points and assists. While Stockton’s all-time record of 15,806 is probably too far off, James recently told Lee Jenkins in a cover story (“2020 Vision: Sporting Greats Eye Lofty Goals In The New Decade”) that he wants to move past Chris Paul, Magic Johnson, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd to claim the No. 2 spot all time. It’s in play!
Out West, Stephen Curry celebrated his daughter Riley’s eighth birthday by moving past Ray Allen to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time three-pointers list. Riley was not in attendance due to her daytime obligations as the CEO of a thriving Bay Area start-up. After moving past 3,000 three-pointers last month, he pledged to hit 5,000 before he calls it quits, although reporters are already speculating that he will devote more time to his budding political future rather than hang on deep into his 30s. — B.G.