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What To Watch For In The 2020-21 NBA Season

Although it seems like the 2019-20 NBA season just ended — the Los Angeles Lakers lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy a scant 68 days ago — the 2020-21 NBA season is set to begin on Tuesday, with primetime showdowns featuring the rebuilt Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors and another installment of the intracity L.A. rivalry. In anticipation of tip-off, FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR projections are back too … and we’ve made some adjustments to improve our forecasts going forward.

For those interested only in the predictions, skip a few paragraphs ahead. But if you’re still with me here, let’s talk about what’s changed since our projections were, um, not so great in last year’s playoffs. In Year 1 of RAPTOR, we were actually using an alternative version of the stat called “PREDATOR”1 that was intended to down-weight “lucky” events, such as opponent 3-point shooting, in order to be more predictive. With the benefit of an offseason to test, though, we found that standard RAPTOR outperforms PREDATOR in essentially every way, so we will only be using RAPTOR for both our player evaluations and our team forecasts going forward. (You can download a fun database of historical regular-season and playoff RAPTOR data here.)


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That’s the big headline change, but there are some other improvements as well. In our testing, we found that blending a team’s Elo rating with its talent metric (based on the RAPTOR projections of the players in its rotation, adjusting for injury) improves the forecasts, particularly if we vary the weight given to Elo based on how much it was built up by players currently on the roster.2 We also made slight changes to home-court advantage — it’s 75 percent of its usual level in 2020-21, at least as long as full-capacity crowds aren’t allowed in NBA arenas — and made our in-season RAPTOR talent adjustments slightly slower to update when a player has logged fewer than 1,000 regular-season or 750 playoff minutes.3

[Related: Our 2020-21 NBA Predictions]

Now that the administrative details are out of the way, let’s talk about what RAPTOR sees in store for the 2020-21 NBA season. Let’s start in the Western Conference, home of the defending-champion Lakers:

How RAPTOR is predicting the West

Preseason predicted standings for the 2020-21 Western Conference, according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR forecast

Proj. Record Chance to…
Rk Team Current Rating Wins Losses Make Playoffs Make Finals Win Title
1 Lakers 1658 48 24 94% 33% 21%
2 Clippers 1637 45 27 89 22 12
3 Nuggets 1613 45 27 86 13 6
4 Rockets 1595 43 29 80 7 3
5 Suns 1604 42 30 75 7 3
6 Mavericks 1584 42 30 72 7 3
7 Jazz 1590 41 31 70 6 2
8 Trail Blazers 1559 40 32 60 2 <1
9 Pelicans 1552 36 36 42 2 <1
10 Timberwolves 1483 35 37 34 1 <1
11 Spurs 1495 35 37 32 <1 <1
12 Grizzlies 1515 34 38 28 <1 <1
13 Warriors 1488 31 41 16 <1 <1
14 Kings 1503 31 41 16 <1 <1
15 Thunder 1466 27 45 5 <1 <1

Simulations as of Dec. 16, 2020.

Unsurprisingly, the two L.A. rivals are still easily the most likely teams to emerge from the West, with the Lakers getting a clear preseason edge over the Clippers. The champs lost a few role players from last year’s title team — most notably Danny Green, who went east to the 76ers — but picked up some other interesting names, such as Dennis Schröder, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell. (And of course, having the devastating duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis locked in for the long haul doesn’t hurt!) The Clips are trying to rebound from last year’s disappointment with a new coach — Tyronn Lue replaced Doc Rivers — but roughly the same core, spearheaded by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George (both of whom RAPTOR adores). And the model thinks the Nuggets are sort of in the West’s title conversation again as well, thanks to stars Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray, plus up-and-coming young forward Michael Porter Jr. Talent-wise, though, it’s unclear if Denver has closed the gap enough to avoid a repeat of last season’s five-game defeat versus the Lakers in the conference finals.

Below the top three, RAPTOR finds a few compelling teams with intriguing possibilities. The Rockets will drop like a rock if they trade James Harden, but newcomer Christian Wood — and I guess John Wall?4 — leave them in surprisingly decent shape5 for now. And who doesn’t love the Suns and Mavericks as teams further on the rise after last season’s breakouts? In mostly the same field of playoff contenders, RAPTOR sees Phoenix likely sliding up to replace the Thunder in the postseason, as OKC’s strategic rebuild figures to (temporarily) land it in the West’s basement. Perhaps the most surprising part of RAPTOR’s Western Conference forecast is how little it regards the Warriors, despite Stephen Curry and Draymond Green returning to full strength. Missing Klay Thompson, with a cast of not-so-highly-rated players mostly surrounding Steph and Dray,6 in the difficult West? On paper, this doesn’t look like the recipe for Golden State to have an instant bounceback. But at the same time, maybe this forecast is too pessimistic for any team that features Curry’s ability to shred defenses (when he’s healthy and locked in).

How RAPTOR is predicting the East

Preseason predicted standings for the 2020-21 Eastern Conference, according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR forecast

Proj. Record Chance to…
Rk Team Current Rating Wins Losses Make Playoffs Make Finals Win Title
1 Celtics 1602 46 26 98% 27% 15%
2 76ers 1603 45 27 97 24 12
3 Bucks 1632 46 26 98 22 10
4 Raptors 1607 41 31 90 10 4
5 Heat 1594 41 31 91 9 4
6 Nets 1578 40 32 84 4 1
7 Pacers 1537 36 36 70 2 <1
8 Hawks 1536 35 37 65 1 <1
9 Magic 1512 36 36 67 <1 <1
10 Wizards 1430 25 47 11 <1 <1
11 Bulls 1421 25 47 10 <1 <1
12 Hornets 1396 24 48 8 <1 <1
13 Knicks 1382 23 49 5 <1 <1
14 Cavaliers 1380 22 50 4 <1 <1
15 Pistons 1354 18 54 1 <1 <1

Simulations as of Dec. 16, 2020.

Over in the East, our forecast predicts a three-team logjam at the top … and none of the three are the defending conference champions. According to RAPTOR, the Celtics, Sixers and Bucks each have between a 20 and 30 percent chance of making the Finals; no other East team is above 10 percent. Boston lost Gordon Hayward over the offseason but returns an imposing starting lineup7 when Kemba Walker is back from injury. Philly still has plenty of questions about how Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons work together, but their talent is undeniable — and new exec Daryl Morey has already improved what Rivers has to work with in his first season as coach. And Milwaukee overhauled last year’s supporting cast enough to convince Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign a supermax extension with the club just this week. Add it up, and RAPTOR thinks one of those three teams has a 73 percent chance of winning the East.

[Related: Our NBA Player Projections]

And what of the Heat — who, you know, actually did that last season? Although they’re running it back with roughly the same roster that beat both Milwaukee and Boston in the postseason (give or take an Avery Bradley here and a Jae Crowder there), RAPTOR gives Miami just a 9 percent chance of pulling off the feat again. That essentially ties them for fourth-best in the conference with the Raptors, another team returning most of the names we expect to see in that uniform. (The Pacers might actually have the most continuity of any team, though RAPTOR calls for them to take a step back despite a healthy Victor Oladipo.) Among the teams that look pretty different, the Nets will finally roll out their long-awaited Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving pairing, while the Hawks spent the offseason adding a lot of offense around star Trae Young. For what it’s worth, RAPTOR is skeptical about both teams, seeing Brooklyn as a solid playoff squad but only a long-shot title contender, while Atlanta is right on the edge of the playoffs. Aside from the Hawks improving to join the conversation, RAPTOR thinks the East’s playoff picture will look relatively familiar in 2020-21.

And in terms of the overall championship picture, our model lists five teams with double-digit title odds: the Lakers (21 percent), Celtics (15 percent), Clippers (12 percent), 76ers (12 percent) and Bucks (10 percent). That means LeBron and AD are favorites to repeat as NBA champs … but a lot can happen between now and the Finals. Let the games begin!

Jay Boice contributed research.

Footnotes

  1. “PREDictive rApTOR.”

  2. We now alter Elo’s weight to make up between 0 and 55 percent of a team’s overall power rating relative to its RAPTOR talent, depending on the continuity of its lineup over time. (The average weight for Elo will be around 35 percent at any given time during the season.)

  3. This was another issue with the rating updates during last year’s playoffs, since it meant the faulty PREDATOR numbers were phased in faster for contending teams.

  4. But probably not.

  5. Unlike Harden. (OK, I’ll stop.)

  6. Although rookie James Wiseman looks like a great prospect down the road.

  7. With four players rated +2 or better by RAPTOR and none below average.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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