NBA set to start ‘21 season next Tuesday

The Milwaukee Bucks are again favored to win the Eastern Conference, something they’ve failed to do despite being cast in that role in each of the past two seasons.

Like the boy who cried wolf, most observers and bettors are probably tired of believing in the Bucks, especially with two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo deciding to sign a super max contract that would tie him to Milwaukee for five years and pay him $228  million.

If he’s hesitant, what hope do the Bucks have of gelling in the manner required to finally reach the NBA Finals?

All that has been considered when I tell you that I’ve come to the conclusion that Mike Budenholzer’s team is indeed worthy of your futures’ investment. At 11-to-4 to win the East and +650 to win the NBA title according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, which indicates an implied ­probability of 13.3 percent, Milwaukee is undervalued as the favorite.

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A team that has gone a combined 116-39, winning nearly 75 percent of their games over the past two seasons, has had its win total set at 49.5 at most shops this season. That’s still the highest total hung on any team, but only requires Milwaukee winning at a 69.4 percent clip for them to reach that figure.

Here’s a news flash — the Bucks are going to be far better this season, barring a significant injury — than they’ve been since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and Bob Dandridge were going to work on the rest of the league in the early 1970’s. The arrival of Jrue Holiday, secured thanks to a major investment of future first-round picks and the departure of last season’s point guards, Eric Bledsoe (to New Orleans) and George Hill (to Oklahoma City) secured another All-Star to help run the offense and lead the defense.

Holiday is one of the NBA’s top on-ball defenders, which combined with the length and shot-blocking prowess Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez bring to the table, will make the Bucks one of the league’s stingiest teams in addition to one of the most explosive. Forwards Bobby Portis and Torrey Craig are hard workers who will fit right in up front while wing Donte DiVincenzo should be an X-factor after a trade that would’ve sent him to Sacramento for Bogdan Bogdanovic was rescinded.

Consider that although fans likely won’t pack Fiserv Forum until hopefully March and the subsequent playoffs, the Bucks were 69-15 over the past two seasons and lost out on that edge as the East’s top seed due to the playoffs being held in the bubble. Antetokounmpo was hobbled by an ankle injury, and although you can’t take anything away from the brilliant job Miami did against them in their semifinal round upset, I believe the Bucks would’ve gotten to a second straight Eastern Conference finals if not for the pandemic.

There’s also the curious case of Budenholzer never playing Antetokounmpo more than 36 minutes in a playoff game in the bubble, which led to him averaging just 30.8 minutes per game out of 48 in the postseason. That was just slightly more than what he averaged during the regular season. Count on that changing. Antetokounmpo has been vocal that he wants to be out there for as long as it takes.

The Nets, Heat, Celtics, Raptors, 76ers and Pacers all have strong characteristics but will continue to be a step behind the Bucks, who not only have the MVP, but exceptional depth and a great homecourt edge that should be back in play. Don’t forget Brooklyn finally gets to debut the Kevin Durant-Kyrie Irving combo that made it the big winners of the 2019 offseason. Whether they add another piece or stay put with the roster that’s in place, new head coach Steve Nash should have a big winner on his hands immediately.

Look for the Hawks and Bulls to take a step forward in joining that group as potential playoff teams since I believe both will surpass their projected win totals as the East’s most improved teams. Chicago guard Coby White is my choice for Most Improved and Atlanta could push the Heat for Southeast Division supremacy with Clint Capela, Bogdanovic Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn and Tony Snell set to join potential All-Stars Trae Young and John Collins in supporting roles. The Hawks are loaded.

My Rookie of the Year pick is Cleveland’s Isaac Okoro, a two-way stud out of Auburn who went No. 5 in November’s draft. I’ve seen odds as high as +6000 on him so oddsmakers may be asleep at the wheel there.

The NBA announced its schedule only through first few days of March, looking to ensure flexibility in uncertain times. We’ll see how that affects matters since the early slate often calls for teams to play one another twice in a three-day span to limit travel, which should create some unique results.

The Lakers are rightfully the NBA favorite, listed 11-to-4 at the SuperBook. LeBron James is aging better than any star ever has and Anthony Davis blossomed into a winner under his tutelage in the bubble, imposing his will on both sides of the ball. With my choice for last season’s champion, the Clippers, losing Montrezl Harrell to the Lakers and parting ways with Doc Rivers, now in Philadelphia, the West should again be the Lakers’ for the taking.

The Pelicans, now coached by Stan Van Gundy and featuring Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Bledsoe, Steven Adams, Josh Hart and J.J. Redick as a great top-seven, are my surprise choice to emerge in the Southwest Division over Dallas and Houston. Although Luka Doncic is the MVP favorite, he’ll be without tag-team partner Kristaps Porzingis until some point in January due to a knee procedure, which could lead to a slow start. I’d ride with an Antetokounmpo MVP three-peat.

Nikola Jokic should lead Denver to a Northwest Division title with Michael Porter, Jr. emerging alongside the big center and Jamal Murray but the West will remain loaded since Golden State has welcomed Stephen Curry back in the fold and Utah figures to be strong again. Houston is an X-factor given the uncertainty surrounding James Harden’s future with the organization since he wants out despite John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins coming on board off major injuries.

Another wild ride is set to start. Fade the Lakers early since LeBron is going to ramp up at his own pace and wasn’t exactly thrilled to be starting before Christmas after winning a fourth championship as recently as mid-October. The bubble was a huge success and we should all be thankful it helped restore some normalcy alongside the other sports that were able to return to action despite the coronavirus. But I think we’re all hoping to see packed arenas come late April and May for the playoffs. If we see it, count on the Bucks being the team that benefits most.

Tuesday

Warriors at Nets -5.5: Only the absence of Klay Thompson keeps us from being absolutely giddy over Game 1, which features Durant’s official return and Curry leading his team onto the floor in a season opener for the first time since 2019. Durant looks fantastic and is 100 percent healthy from that Achilles tear based on what we’ve seen from him this preseason.

Meanwhile, Golden State still has to get used to one another since Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre and rookie James Wiseman are joining forces with Curry and Draymond Green for the first time. It’s wild to think that Brooklyn is likely to have more chemistry than a Warriors team that reached the Finals each year from 2015-19 but Steve Kerr has a lot of meshing to do on the fly. 

Early numbers have the Nets favored by 5.5 and I like them to cover. NETS

Clippers +2 at Lakers: The Lakers will see another banner rise to the rafters prior to the start of this one but will face a disappointing night once that ceremony is over.

With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George looking to make up for a disappointing end to the 2019-20 season after blowing a 3-1 series lead to Denver, expect the Clippers to be the more driven group in this one as Tyronn Lue debuts as the team’s head coach.

James faces a tall task right out of the gate with two of the top defensive wings in the game coming in with something to prove. Take the bucket and fade the defending champs against their Staples Center roommates. CLIPPERS