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Gary Washburn | ON BASKETBALL

Previewing the 2020-21 NBA season: MVPs, biggest busts, coaches on the hot seat, and teams on the rise

Kevin Durant's on-court tenure in Brooklyn began as bright as possible, the Nets blowing out his former team, Golden State.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Gary Washburn, our NBA writer, offers some thoughts, predictions, and observations ahead of the Celtics’ season opener.

Top storylines

Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn — The club has championship aspirations as Durant comes back from taking a full year off to recover from a torn Achilles and Irving begins his first full season with the Nets. Durant looked completely back to himself in his preseason appearance at TD Garden, while Irving claims he’s (finally) healthy and happy. Will this work under new coach Steve Nash? And can the duo stay healthy and flourish with a deep roster that’s build to win a title?


What happens with Harden? — James Harden has requested a trade, but the Houston Rockets don’t feel pressed to make a move since he has two years left on his contract (with a player option for a third). The Rockets have changed coaches and their general manager, and also traded away Russell Westbrook. Where will Harden go? And what kind of package will the Rockets get in return for one of the more prolific scorers in league history?

Doc in Philly — The Philadelphia 76ers hired Doc Rivers as their coach three days after he parted ways with the Los Angeles Clippers. He inherits a team with All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but coming off a disappointing season and with new general manager Daryl Morey. It will be a fascinating season in Philadelphia. How will the 76ers fare? Is this Rivers’s final NBA job? How involved are the 76ers in the Harden trade talks?

New faces in new places

Gordon Hayward is getting used to a new team in Charlotte.Matt Stamey/Associated Press

Gordon Hayward, Charlotte — Hayward surprisingly opted out of the final year of his contract, then signed a more shocking four-year, $120 million deal to become the next cornerstone in Michael Jordan’s franchise. Hayward took exactly two preseason games to suffer his first injury, a broken finger, but he should help the Hornets surge toward the playoffs.


Russell Westbrook, Washington — Can he catapult the Wizards back to respectability? Westbrook wanted out of Houston after one season; Washington served as a perfect trade partner because it had John Wall, who makes approximately the same salary. Westbrook is still an impactful player, but the question is whether he is on the downside of his stellar career. Washington is looking to make a playoff run, and Westbrook and Bradley Beal gives them two legitimate All-Stars.

John Wall, Houston — Wall wanted out of Washington after missing nearly two years because of injuries. He has a new home in Houston, is completely healthy, and playing with former college teammate DeMarcus Cousins. James Harden is also still in Houston, but it’s uncertain how long that will last. In preseason games, Wall has looked speedy and productive, giving the Rockets a different wrinkle and perhaps a chance to compete for the playoffs.

MVP candidates

Anthony Davis, Lakers — Davis, one of the premiere players in the NBA, just won his first NBA title. Now it’s time for him to take the next major step and compete for an MVP. When healthy, Davis is the most skilled and imposing big man in the league because he can shoot from the perimeter, score at the rim, and also defend. There are no excuses for Davis not to be the MVP.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks — The two-time reigning MVP just signed a five-year extension to keep him in Milwaukee deep into this decade. Entering his prime, he is one of the league’s most unstoppable forces. The Bucks are improved around him, so there is a definitely opportunity for him to become the first three-time consecutive MVP since the great Larry Bird.


Could Kevin Durant be headed for another MVP year?Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Kevin Durant, Nets — Yes, we know Durant missed last year, but he looks back to vintage form. If the Nets fare well in the East, Durant is a definite MVP candidate. He doesn’t need elite athleticism to score, he uses his length and savvy, and he is one of the league’s most feared 3-point shooters. So it’s completely possible to win his second MVP award.

Potential busts with new teams

Marc Gasol, Lakers — We saw how slow and ineffective Gasol was for Toronto in the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Celtics. Now with the Lakers to be their starting center, this may not go all that well. Gasol struggled to shoot and rebound in the Boston series. Was that an aberration?

DeMarcus Cousins, Rockets — Coming off an Achilles tear and an ACL injury, how much can the 30-year-old body of Cousins stand? He has turned into an empathic figure because of his recent injury history. and Houston could be the perfect place to resurrect his career. Or maybe it won’t.

Gordon Hayward, Hornets — The only thing that has stopped Hayward from flourishing is health, and he’s already dealing with some issues in Charlotte. It’s going to be difficult for Hayward to live up to that massive contract, and the Hornets are not stacked with talent around him.


Teams on the rise

Phoenix Suns — Phoenix went 8-0 in the bubble, and added Chris Paul and former Celtic Jae Crowder to make a legitimate playoff run. With coach Monty Williams serving as a stabilizing force, the Suns looked ready to rise again.

Atlanta Hawks — The Hawks were busts last season because of injuries and youth, but they signed Rajon Rondo, Danilo Gallinari, and Bogdan Bogdanovic to give the franchise the push it needed. The Hawks have playoff aspirations.

Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook form the nucleus of an impressive young Washington team.Rob Carr/Associated Press

Washington Wizards — With Russell Westbrook, the Wizards are now legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference. They brought back Davis Bertans and added Robin Lopez to give the club more experience and toughness. Bradley Beal is a rising star that should finally get his respect.

Teams on the decline

Oklahoma City Thunder — It’s time for a major rebuild. Oklahoma City traded away most of the key players from their playoff team, including Chris Paul and Steven Adams, so they are going to go young and then reap the rewards of the bundle of draft picks they have collected.

Indiana Pacers — The Pacers weren’t active in free agency and there are rumors that former All-Star Victor Oladipo wants out. It’s just too competitive in the East to stand pat, so Indiana should sink barring a return to All-Star form from Oladipo.

Coaches on the hot seat

Luke Walton, Sacramento — Expectations were high in California’s capital for a playoff run last season, and the Kings folded in Walton’s first season. Without a major sign of improvement, new general manager Monte McNair may look to hire his own coach. Walton could get a quick hook if there’s a slow start.


Scott Brooks, Washington — Now that the Wizards have acquired Westbrook and have a healthy Bradley Beal, there are playoff expectations. If the Wizards fall short or remain an also-ran, Brooks may be replaced. He previously led a team to the NBA Finals, but it’s prove-it time for Brooks.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.