By Mike Barner and Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
It wasn’t that long ago that the Los Angeles Lakers won the NBA Championship inside the bubble in Orlando (70 days, to be exact). However, the start of the 2020-21 NBA season is already upon us. That means it’s time to lock in some predictions. These are not just any predictions — they’re bold predictions for the fantasy season.
Let’s take a walk on the wild side.
Kevin Durant finishes as a top-five player
Finishing in the top five is nothing new for Durant, who placed fifth or better in per-game value in every season from 2009-10 through 2017-18. During his final year in Golden State, Durant was the eighth-best fantasy player, with a slight drop in three-pointers (2.5 to 1.8 3PM/G) and blocks (1.8 to 1.1 BPG) accounting for the slide.
After sitting out the entire 2019-20 campaign, Durant returns to a new city with a new team and a surgically repaired Achilles tendon. While Durant looked fantastic in limited preseason action, fantasy managers have been cautiously optimistic, as Durant’s Yahoo ADP sits at 12.6 — behind LeBron James, Jayson Tatum, and Devin Booker. Part of the concern with Durant lies in the potential for missed games, but in a year when virtually every veteran star is at an elevated risk of load management, the blow shouldn’t be as severe. Keep in mind that this is the first time Durant will be the unquestioned No. 1 option since his final year in Oklahoma City.
Stephen Curry will lead the league in scoring
Yes, the Warriors brought in Kelly Oubre Jr. and have Andrew Wiggins returning from last season. However, Draymond Green and James Wiseman are not significant offensive forces and the Warriors’ bench is extremely shallow. On top of that, Klay Thompson (Achilles) will miss his second straight season. Contrary to recent history, points might not be all that easy to come by for this team.
Even with all of the talent around him in recent years, Curry averaged at least 25.3 points per game for four straight seasons entering his injury-shortened 2019-20 campaign. The key is that he had a usage rate of at least 30 percent in all four of those seasons. Given the cast around him this season, Curry could challenge for the lead league in usage rate and be a James Harden-like figure within the Warriors' offense.
LeBron James finishes outside top 15 in per-game value for first time since rookie season
James’ lowest career finish came just two seasons ago when he placed 14th in per-game value in his first year with the Lakers. As usual, James’ counting stats were immaculate, but he hit a career-low 66.5 percent of his free throws while shooting just 33.9 percent from three. James bounced back a season ago, finishing as the eighth-ranked player thanks in large part to a league-leading 10.2 assists per game, as well as a slight bump in free throw efficiency (69.3% FT).
Heading into his 18th season, James has shown few signs of slowing down, though he’ll face a unique obstacle in a condensed schedule. While the potential for missed games shouldn’t impact James’ per-game production, he and the Lakers will face an unprecedented turnaround, having played well into October in the bubble. If ever there was a time for James to start showing some wear and tear, it would be now.
Luka Doncic will average a triple-double
Doncic made a big splash during his rookie season when he averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and six assists per game. However, as promising as he looked then, it would have been hard for anyone to imagine the improvement that he would make last season. In just his second season in the league, he averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 8.8 assists. He was also more efficient, shooting 46.3 percent from the field and 75.8 percent from the charity stripe. It’s pretty remarkable that his field goal percentage increased by nearly four percentage points despite Doncic averaging 8.9 three-point attempts per contest.
It’s scary to think that Doncic could improve even more this season, but he could do just that on his way to averaging a triple-double. He dished out at least 10 assists 26 times and he had at least 10 rebounds 30 times during the regular season last year. He could be extremely busy on the glass early on with Kristaps Porzingis (knee) possibly out until at least part of the way through January, if not longer. Add that to how often Doncic has the ball in his hands to help with his assist totals and we could see a season for the record books.
Kyrie Irving plays fewer than 55 games
When the Nets added Irving and Kevin Durant to their roster last season, it was to be ready to compete for a title during the 2020-21 campaign. Durant is now more than a year removed from his torn Achilles and Irving has had plenty of time to heal from his shoulder injury. With a talented supporting cast around them, the Nets are poised to be one of the best teams in the league.
All of that is exciting for Nets fans. However, it also means that Brooklyn’s goal during the regular season won’t be to finish with the best record, it will be to enter the playoffs healthy. With a condensed schedule on the horizon, expect plenty of rest days for both Irving and Durant. Irving hasn’t played more than 67 games in any of the last three seasons and there is no reason to push him to play a ton this season, either. Durant is the player coming off of the far more serious injury, but it’s Irving who fantasy managers should be more concerned about.
Bradley Beal finishes outside the top 10 in points per game
All the stars aligned for Beal last season. The Wizards had very little talent around him and John Wall didn’t play a single game while recovering from a torn Achilles. That helped Beal average a career-high 30.5 points per game, which ranked second in the league behind only James Harden (34.3). He received all of the scoring opportunities that he could handle along the way, posting a 34.4 percent usage rate.
Wall was shipped to the Rockets during the offseason in a deal that netted the Wizards another star point guard in Russell Westbrook. That should mean fewer scoring opportunities are coming for Beal considering Westbrook has a 32.7 percent usage rate for his career. Prior to last season, Beal had never posted a usage rate higher than 28.4 percent nor had he averaged more than 25.6 points per game. The Wizards also have some other talented players in Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura, and Deni Avdija, all who could further limit Beal’s upside. He’ll still be an extremely valuable fantasy option, but don’t be surprised if Beal takes a significant step backward as a scorer now that he finally has some help.
Marcus Smart leads the league in total steals
The Celtics had limited depth last season and Gordon Hayward missed time because of injuries, which left Smart to average a career-high 32 minutes a game. He is one of the best defensive players in the league, so the added playing time helped him finish tied for the 10th-most total steals in the league. This is supposed to be a bold prediction, but jumping up to No. 1 might not exactly be a herculean feat considering Smart was only 24 steals behind last year’s league leader (James Harden). Hayward is now with the Hornets, Kemba Walker is battling a knee problem and the Celtics have limited backcourt depth, which means Smart could take on an even heavier workload this season.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Finishes inside Top-15 in Usage Rate, More Rebounds than Myles Turner
Gilgeous-Alexander finished 61st in the league last season with a 23.7 percent usage rate, so this would require a significant jump in the category. It’s important to note that he posted that usage rate playing alongside Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Danilo Gallinari, all of whom are no longer on the team. The Thunder didn’t bring in much talent to help offset their losses, instead opting to stockpile first-round picks as they begin a top-down rebuild. Gilgeous-Alexander is going to receive all of the scoring opportunities he can handle, so get ready for an offensive explosion.
Another key player who is no longer with the Thunder is Steven Adams, who often clogged up the paint while soaking up rebounds. In to replace him is Al Horford, who is more comfortable playing away from the rim. Their other primary big men are shaping up to be Darius Bazley, Mike Muscala, and Aleksej Pokusevski. Gilgeous-Alexander already averaged 5.9 rebounds a game last season and he could see a significant boost in that category this season.
Turner might be a center, but he’s not your traditional center. He’s never been a great source for rebounds, averaging 6.6 rebounds or fewer in three of his five seasons in the league. He’s also becoming more comfortable shooting three-pointers, which further pulls him out of the paint. Gilgeous-Alexander could threaten to average seven rebounds a game with so little talent and size around him, so if Turner doesn’t step up his game, I don’t see why this prediction can’t come to fruition.
Brandon Clarke finishes the season ranked inside the Top-50
Clarke only averaged 22 minutes a night during his rookie campaign, but that didn’t stop him from finishing the season ranked 90th overall on a per-game basis. He shot a lofty 61.8 percent from the field while shooting 75.9 percent from the charity stripe. He chipped in 0.6 steals, 0.8 blocks, and 0.4 three-pointers per contest, showing a versatile skillset that translates well to fantasy. Jaren Jackson Jr. (knee) won’t be ready to start the season and could be limited when he does return. All of this lines up perfectly for Clarke, who was already set to take a step forward in Year 2.
Coby White finishes Inside the Top-15 in Made Three-Pointers
It’s a new era in Chicago with the old management and coaching staff no longer in town. With a new regime comes White moving into the team’s starting point guard role. He averaged 26 minutes a night while mostly coming off the bench during his rookie campaign, but that didn’t stop him from averaging 2.0 three-pointers per contest. Over the final 13 games of the season, White saw his playing time increase to 33 minutes a night. During that stretch, he averaged 3.0 three-pointers per game — a number that would’ve tied him for 10th in the league over the full season. Expect White to carry that momentum into 2020-21.