What we already know about the 2021 NBA season

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October 13th, 2020

The longest NBA season in history has culminated in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 17th championship.

Played partially inside the Orlando bubble from July through October (in light of the COVID-19 pandemic), the 2019-20 NBA season was littered with obstacles that now muddle the outlook of the upcoming season.

League commissioner Adam Silver has indicated the 2020-21 season may not begin until January. Until the NBA and National Basketball Players Association can negotiate next season’s salary cap, free agency has been placed on hold, and no decision has been made on next season’s start date.

While it’s easy to focus on the uncertainties, here is what we do know about the upcoming 2020-21 season, from the NBA draft date, to coaching changes, fan attendance, and which teams should be championship contenders.

When will the 2020 NBA draft be held?

Originally scheduled for June 25, the 2020 NBA Draft will now take place Nov. 18.

The nearly one-month gap from the conclusion of the 2020 NBA Finals until the draft will allow enough time for league and NBPA negotiations.

A "virtual combine," including 30-minute Zoom interviews between players and teams, plus in-person medical testing, is currently in session.

Who has the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft?

The Minnesota Timberwolves (19-45 in 2019-20) own the No. 1 overall selection in the 2020 NBA draft.

Below is the full first-round draft order:

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves
  2. Golden State Warriors
  3. Charlotte Hornets
  4. Chicago Bulls
  5. Cleveland Cavaliers
  6. Atlanta Hawks
  7. Detroit Pistons
  8. New York Knicks
  9. Washington Wizards
  10. Phoenix Suns
  11. San Antonio Spurs
  12. Sacramento Kings
  13. New Orleans Pelicans
  14. Boston Celtics (from Grizzlies)
  15. Orlando Magic
  16. Portland Trail Blazers
  17. Minnesota Timberwolves (from Nets)
  18. Dallas Mavericks
  19. Brooklyn Nets (from Sixers)
  20. Miami Heat
  21. Philadelphia 76ers (from Thunder)
  22. Denver Nuggets (from Rockets)
  23. Utah Jazz
  24. Milwaukee Bucks (from Pacers)
  25. Oklahoma City Thunder (from Nuggets)
  26. Boston Celtics
  27. New York Knicks (from Clippers)
  28. Los Angeles Lakers
  29. Toronto Raptors
  30. Boston Celtics (from Bucks)

Which player will be selected first overall in the 2020 NBA draft?

Georgia shooting guard Anthony Edwards, Memphis center James Wiseman, and the youngest Ball brother, LaMelo, are all in the running as the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming draft.

Other players who could come off the board quickly include Obi Toppin, the Naismith College Player of the Year out of Dayton, international prospect Deni Avdija, an Israeli forward for Maccabi Tel Aviv, and point guard Killian Hayes, who has been playing professional basketball in Germany.

NBA coaching changes

In addition to adding new players in the offseason, a handful of franchises will welcome new coaching staff as well.

Kyrie Irving may not like it, but the Brooklyn Nets hired a new head coach in two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash.

Meanwhile, the New York Knicks brought in former Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau, and longtime Clippers coach Doc Rivers will move back east to coach the Philadelphia 76ers.

Billy Donovan mutually agreed to part ways with the Oklahoma City Thunder and accepted the head coaching job in Chicago, while Mike D'Antoni informed the Houston Rockets that he would not return for another season as head coach.

Current coaching vacancies that have yet to be filled include those with the Rockets, Pacers, Clippers, Pelicans, and Thunder.

Tyronn Lue, Jeff Van Gundy, Wes Unseld Jr., and Kenny Atkinson are among the rumored candidates to fill the available coaching positions.

When will the 2020-21 NBA season most likely start?

First, it was Dec. 1, then the possible start date shifted to Christmas Day.

The NBPA has since requested more downtime between the end of the 2019-20 season and the tipoff to next season, which makes sometime in January the most likely option for the 2020-21 season to start.

Next year's All-Star Game had been scheduled for Feb. 14, 2021 and will likely be postponed in the wake of schedule changes.

Will the NBA play a full, 82-game season in 2020-21?

As far as we know, the aim is to complete an 82-game season.

The league will attempt to condense the time span in which those 82 games are played to reduce travel and the risk of COVID-19 exposure.

There has been discussion of multi-game series in order to achieve that goal. 

One issue the league may run into is travel between Canada and the U.S., which would impact the Toronto Raptors and may force the team to relocate temporarily, similar to what happened to the Toronto Blue Jays in Major League Baseball.

The likelihood of another bubble environment is probably off the table, and would be a hard sell for players, many of whom found the environment mentally taxing.

Will fans be allowed to attend NBA games next season?

Getting fans back in arenas is a top priority for the league, especially considering the loss in revenue the NBA suffered after in-person attendance took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Around 40 percent of the NBA's annual $8 billion revenue comes from ticket sales, concessions, parking, and merchandise. Silver has said he would consider postponing the 2020-21 season start date to February or March if it meant fans could attend games. 

Fan attendance and arena capacity will also likely be determined on a state-by-state basis, based on local government mandates. 

Who will win the 2021 NBA Championship?

Which teams will contend for the 2020-21 NBA title?

The defending champion Lakers will be a frontrunner to repeat next season, while the Clippers and Bucks remain in the conversation.

One team, in particular, to watch out for is the Golden State Warriors, who appeared in five of the past six NBA Finals, and won three. Golden State owned the worst record in the league this past season, after the team succumbed to injuries.

In 2021, the team should be back in title contention with a healthy squad and will get the benefit of picking second in the 2020 NBA Draft in November.