The 2020-21 NBA season, the league's 75th anniversary year, will open Tuesday, as the Golden State Warriors will take on the Brooklyn Nets in New York, while the defending champion Lakers will resume their rivalry with the cross-town Clippers in Los Angeles.
Although it is shortened to 72 games, it will mark another step back toward normality, after the remarkable 2019-20 season, which was suspended in March due to the Covid pandemic, then restarted on 30 July, with 22 teams playing eight games to determine playoff seedings, then 16 teams playing off in a bubble in Orlando. This was interrupted by a four-day wildcat strike by teams protesting in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Milwaukee. The playoffs resumed with the finals ending on October 11, just 10 days short of a full year from the day the season began.
Ten weeks later, with all the usual off-season activities - draft, trades, free agency, contracts, piled into this short period - the 75th season will start. In some ways it's a case of the strong getting stronger, with lots of changes packed into the downtime. So in many ways it will be a familiar cast of contenders for the NBA title.
Here's my guide to the Western Conference, beginning with the defending champions and favourites.
The Kareem of the Crop
Los Angeles Lakers 14/5
The defending champions are not just stronger, but much stronger than they were when they won the bubbled mini-playoffs just over two months ago. They return with the best player in the game, LeBron James, and the best center, Anthony Davis, and knowing LeBron, 35, needs to be paced, GM Rob Pelinka won the offseason.
Trading Jeff Green and a draft pick to OKC for German point guard Dennis Schroder to replace Rajon Rondo was a steal. They signed Wes Matthews to replace Green, signed the Clippers' Montrezl Harris, who was the league's Sixth Man of the Year, and brought back Marc Gasol, the big Spanish center who cements their front-court depth, even if he's a year older than LeBron. They're talented, versatile, deep and even younger.
The Slam Dunks
Dallas Mavericks 16/1
Luka Doncic, the Slovenian point guard who was fourth in the MVP voting and averaged 29 points per game is only 21, and Latvian center Kristaps Porzingis, if he stays healthy, creates an inside/outside match-up nightmare. Coach Rock Carlisle is one of the league's best, and when they traded Seth Curry to Philadelphia for Josh Richardson, he got the kind of all-round role player who should complement his back-court star. Doncic lit things up as they bowed out in the playoffs to the Clippers; this year he's older and has more help.
Los Angeles Clippers 11/2
Blowing a 3-1 lead against the Nuggets in playoffs finals got coach Doc Rivers fired, and along with Harrell departing crosstown they also lost JaMychal Green. Kawhi Leonard may only be the second-best player in LA, but he may also be the second-best in the world, and Paul George is star quality.
The real question is whether new coach Ty Lue can integrate their play together, as he did when he won an NBA title with LeBron in his rookie season coaching Cleveland. They added veteran Spanish big man Serge Ibaka and wing man Luke Kennard, who can shoot, but they still may be struggling against their local rivals at center and the point.
Denver Nuggets 14/1
Will the Nuggets be a better team this season than they were in those three playoff games? They lost Jerami Grant, maybe their best scorer/defender, but they added JaMychal Green from the Clips to replace him. Their core remains the same: the 7-0 Serbian center Nicola Jokic, forward Michael Porter and Canadian guard Jamal Murray. They think they got a steal in the draft-day trade that netted them guard RJ Hampton, who skipped college to play for the New Zealand Breakers in the Aussie NBL. He averaged nine points a game Down Under, so he may still have something to prove.
The three point outside shots
Utah Jazz 25/1
Like the Clippers, the Jazz blew a 3-1 playoff lead against the Nuggets, but they had a slow start to their season because Michael Conley had a slow start to his, and then Croatian small forward Bojan Bogdanovic missed the playoffs. They're often cited as a dark-horse favourite, French center Rudy Gobert is solid, and Donovan Mitchell is a rising star who people still haven't recognised as such. They added Derrick Favors from the Pelicans to give them a power-forward to complement Bogdanovic. A veteran bench led by Aussie Joe Ingles returns, and rookie center Udoka Azbuike might help them cope with the muscle of the other contenders.
Golden State Warriors 20/1
Klay Thompson is out for the season, which means those odds somewhat flatter the perennial contenders, who still have Stef Curry and Draymond Green. But the thinking is that if the team squeezes into the playoffs those two can catch fire and carry them longer than their record may indicate.
They picked up swing-man Kelly Oubre from OKC in a three-way trade. He's not the defender or shooter Thompson is, but he averaged 18.5 and runs the court better. Because Curry's injury last season saw them wind up with the second pick in the draft, they were poised to improve, but surprised everyone by taking Memphis State center James Wiseman, the best center in the draft but highly inexperienced. Center has never been a key position for the modern Warriors. Andrew Wiggins remains an enigma, Kent Bozeman comes back and may get minutes as a perimeter defender.
Phoenix Suns 40/1
This is Chris Paul's team now, a year after Oklahoma City appeared to be his team and he carried them improbably into the playoffs. This is a better situation for him. His running mate at guard is Devin Booker, which makes them one of the league's more dangerous combos, DeAndre Ayton averaged 18 points and 12 boards, and Dario Saric and Jae Crowder ought to help provide stability. They'll be solid, but they'll go only as far as Paul takes them.
Portland Trail Bazers 40/1
Portland rise and fall with their dynamic backcourt combo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who combined for 52 a game, but leave something to be desired defensively. They have guards who can defend, but they can't score as much, so they went out and looked for versatile wing players, adding Robert Covington and Derrick Jones.
They also brought back Turkish center Enes Kanter from Boston; the last time he played in Portland they had a nice playoff run and he's a good pairing for Bosnian Josef Nurkic, who needs to stay healthy. If Rodney Hood recovers from an Achilles, he and veteran Carmelo Anthony provide versatile scoring at four positions, but they still need to stop opponents with backcourts who can score. This is the kind of team you might bet for a winning season or maybe a playoff run.
New Orleans Pelicans 66/1
The Pelicans, with Zion Williamson a natural for the playoff bubble, couldn't do much, so Alvin Gentry is out as coach and Stan Van Gundy is in. They traded Jrue Holiday and nine other players, bringing in Steven Adams to play center, backcourt defender Eric Bledsoe and JJ Reddick who played for Van Gundy in Orlando. Williamson, of course, remains one of the league's top talents. Lonzo Ball has great vision as a point guard, and ex-Laker Brandon Ingram can put 'em up at small forward, but needs to learn to defend both as a three and four.
The Fade-Away Jumpers
Houston Rockets 66/1
You can't completely write off any team with James Harden, but they've added two big question marks. John Wall was an All-Star calibre player, but hasn't played in almost two years, and Boogie Cousins, while once one of the most powerful forces in the league underneath, hasn't shown that form in a while. Rumours are that both Harden and PJ Tucker would prefer to play elsewhere, and swingman Eric Gordon may be slowing down too. If the Rockets decide to rebuild, forget about this season. If they don't, lots of things need to click simultaneously.
San Antonio Spurs 80/1
The Spurs have stars LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan up front, but played a faster, smaller game in the bubble without Alridge and may look to move on sooner rather than later, as Gregg Popovich remains a master of adjusting his team to changes. Two more veterans, forward Rudy Gay and Aussie PG Patty Mills could benefit from a more running game.
Dejounte Murray ought to be recovered from an ACL at one guard, and Derrick White is another who ought to benefit from a bit of run and shoot. They took a shooting guard, Devin Vassell, with their first pick in the draft, which may help as Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli are both gone. Austria's Jakob Poeltl remains the starting center. Watch for 20-year-old Croatian PF Luka Samanic, or SF Keta Bates-Diop, who played last year in the G League, to perhaps surprise.
The throw up a prayers
Oklahoma City Thunder 80/1
GM Sam Presti continued his remake of OKC by trading (Chris) Paul for picks, just as he had traded Paul (George) for picks the year before. Chris led them to the playoffs, but also gone from that team are Dennis Schroeder (to the Lakers), Kelly Oubre, Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari. Canada's dynamic duo of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lu Dort are probably their biggest threats now, with Dort establishing himself as a stopper in the playoffs going against Harden. Veteran center Al Horford is heady, and may help a young team, but guys like Trevor Ariza and George Hill are the kind of players other teams may chase for the seventh or eighth places on their benches.
Sacramento Kings 80/1
The Kings let Bogdan Bogdanovich walk because they have Buddy Hield and D'Aaron Fox, both proven scorers at guard with rookie Tyrese Haliburton as a combo guard prospect. Marvin Bagley remains an oft-injured enigma up-front, where newcomers Hassan Whiteside and Frank Kaminsky add some muscle alongside Serbian big man Nemanja Bjelica. The real question is, what happens to Harrison Barnes, who played for Golden State when coach Luke Walton was an assistant? Barnes can't carry a team at small forward and makes too much money to be part of a supporting cast on a losing team. Look for a contender to trade for him in the New Year.
Memphis Grizzlies 80/1
There's some promise on this young team but, with starting PF Jaren Jackson and top bench player Justice Winslow both injured to start the season, they may struggle. Ja Morant is one of the league's unheralded highlight reel star point guards, and Dillon Brooks can score as well, while they signed De'Anthony Melton to a big contract for his defensive skills. Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas is a good big, but you could see them going small more often once Jackson and Winslow are back.
Minnesota Timberwolves 80/1
The Wolves declined last year, to the point where they've added the first-overall draft pick, Anthony Edwards, and the small forward becomes the third top-two pick in the starting five. DeAngelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns will take two starting spots, with former Wolf Ricky Rubio, returning via trade, competing at the point with Malik Beasley. But with Juancho Hernangomez, like Rubio from Spain, at PF and Josh Okogie at SF, they lack firepower, and moving Edwards to the SF spot instead of shooting guard behind Russell would make sense.
Read Mike's team-by-team guide to the Eastern Conference.