The All-Star break is over, and NBA teams are getting back down to the very important business of once more duking out on the courts for the championship in the second half of the season.
In October 2020, the LA Lakers demolished the Heat to win the NBA championship. That was their 17th title and now they’re looking to go one better in the 2020-2021 season. The players have looked good individually in 2020-2021, but pundits have suggested that team shooting guard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, needs to ramp up his offensive play and become a bigger part of the attack as the team hunt that 18th title.
Despite generally pleasing individual performances, the team stats haven’t made as happy reading as either the team or the fans would have liked. The mid-season interval came at the right time for the Lakers, arriving after losses of the last two games.
Analysts have highlighted Antony Davis’s injury problems as one of the factors in the team underperforming slightly. The team have felt his absence out on the court, posting 7-7 without him in it, and are hoping his injury problems will come to as they return to the chase in the second season.
Before the start of the season, some had predicted Caldwell-Pope’s form and Davis’ fitness (and LeBron James’s fitness) would be problematic for the Lakers’ title hopes. So far, the predictions around Davis are becoming a reality, as are those about Caldwell-Pope. But there’s still plenty of season to go and they could turn things around yet.
Who are the challengers?
The Lakers may or may not be happy for other teams to just sit back and let them stroll up to place their hands on the championship trophy, but that’s pure idealism. No one is going to let them have it that easy. Below are some of the main challengers.
If you’re looking into the latest NBA odds, the Utah Jazz might have caught your eye. These guys have been absolutely smoking this season. With just one game to go before the All-Star break, the Jazz were boasting the best record in the NBA: 27-8.
Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert appear to have sorted out their differences from last year. That’s resulted in better chemistry on the court, and they stand at the head of a squad in which six of the players are averaging double points each night, and the team ranks in the top three both defensively and offensively.
Bookies don’t seem to feel the Jazz are contenders. They could be making a mistake.
The arrival of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in 2019 immediately catapulted the Clippers into championship contention.
But the Clippers failed to live up to expectations and missed out on a place in the Western Conference finals. The team lacked chemistry, continuity, and, in the case of individual players, accountability. All this, coupled within a general unwillingness in the club to make changes, impacted the team.
Fast forward to this season and the Clippers look like a new team. They have new coaches behind them and have acquired three new players: Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, and Luke Kennard. All three are fitting comfortably into the team and rewarding their employer’s faith in them.
Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard is looking every inch the best two-way player in the NBA. He may be noted for his immense point-scoring prowess, but he’s also turning heads these days with his mean defensive play. He reads passing lanes well, has excellent mobility, and can cover ground without overcommitting. Basically, he’s an offensive player’s worst nightmare.
The Suns are looking good just now, and the arrival of point guard Chris Paul has played a major part. The team are playing consistently good quality basketball and are in the top five of the Western Conference.
The experience Paul has brought to the team has had a notable impact on players. Deandre Ayton is shooting a career best and really feeling part of the team. He’s playing much more confidently.
Meanwhile, Devin Booker is benefiting from Paul’s guidance, and Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges have both been showing growth. Best of all, the latter two’s careers are both young and there’s plenty of time for the players to grow and realize their full potential.
Then there’s Paul himself. At 32, point guards start to slow down, whereas Paul is 35 and looks to be as productive and as capable as ever of driving a team to success. Last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder were in playoffs in which no one expected them to be present. Paul could power the Suns to success, too, although analysts have pointed out he’s somewhat unlucky and never seems to be on the side that’s lifting the silverware, despite his on-court brilliance.
The challengers are in fine form, but they’re not the only ones who are snapping at the Lakers’ heels for the championship. The Bucks, the Raptors, the Heat, and the Nuggets are all looking to dash the Lakers’ hopes of an 18th title and secure title glory for themselves. The season doesn’t end until mid-May, however, which means there are still a lot of games to play and that much can change during that time. Let’s see how it all plays out.