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Doesn’t it seem as if we were just here? If it feels that way, you’re not imagining things. The Lakers concluded their 2019-20 championship quest on Oct. 11; 71 days later, the Lakers start their title defense against their intra-arena rivals, the LA Clippers.

But if you are under the impression, because of the shortest offseason in NBA history, not much happened, well, here’s where we have your back. (And why don’t you check in on the latest James Harden trade rumors.)

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Tracker: Free agency and trades

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Luka Doncic has gotten better at basketball every year of his life; is it that outrageous to think he’ll do it again? If he does, Doncic is the narrative favorite to win MVP this season, between his continued ascension as one of the NBA’s two or three best players and the likelihood that his team improves around him too. Will he be the league’s outright best player? Maybe, maybe not. But knowing what we know about this award, he has perhaps the most compelling case to vote for. — Tim Cato

Superstars returning: The best thing about our new season is that we get to see all the stars who missed last season. Well, except, Klay Thompson. But actually there are several others, and many of them are elite players.

Start with Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, the two 32-year-old former MVPs trying to squeeze out another MVP-caliber season from the tail end of their prime. Curry played five games in 2019-20 before hurting his wrist, while Durant missed all of last season with the torn Achilles he suffered in the 2019 NBA Finals. Now on separate coasts, both will be trying to spearhead expensive but flawed rosters toward glory, and both looked close to their old spry selves in the preseason.

I always come into a new NBA season with more questions than predictions. This is rooted in the aphorism (the provenance of which I don’t recall) stating, “You can’t win the title in October.” Or in this case, December. But the maxim holds, perhaps with even greater force in this most unusual of campaigns.

Normally, it is just a reminder of not getting too carried away with a fast start or panic over a week or two of struggles. Add the truncated and oft-interrupted training camps and nearly complete lack of normal offseason workouts or Summer League to the normal early-season weirdness, and I’m not sure we’re going to see what teams “really” look like until mid-January. And you can’t win the title in January…

But seriously, in addition to this normal feeling of uncertainty about the coming season, there are a number of angles at play that make the range of outcomes wider than at the outset of most seasons. Some of these items are directly related to the compressed schedule and pandemic-related difficulties, but some also result from the league approaching what appears to be a period of transition.

We. Are. Back.

That’s right. The NBA season is back and it’s going to be absolute chaos. The shortened season. The threat of postponing or losing games to the pandemic. The short turnaround from whatever last season was. The 2020-21 NBA season is going to be a mess. Maybe it will be a beautiful mess, but a mess nonetheless. Adam Silver and company are hoping for as little chaos as possible with them getting the season schedule back on track and trying to recover as much revenue as possible.

Trying to assess what to expect this season is going to be tough. How will COVID-19 affect the league outside of a bubble? How will teams manage the regular season? Will the truncated schedule and sacrifices when it comes to the league’s policy and execution with a balanced schedule and proper rest end up costing it some important players due to injury? There are a ton of questions as we head into the first week of Power Rankings.

L.A. stories

Bill Oram and Joe Vardon: A call that shaped the battle for LA: The Lakers, Clippers and a coaching story

Frank Vogel’s dream job was waiting for him on the other side of the country. But he wasn’t going to board a plane and fly from his Orlando home to Los Angeles without first talking to the man who had created this unexpected opportunity.

He needed to call Tyronn Lue.

Hours earlier, Lue had turned down the job offer from the Lakers that most everyone assumed he would accept. And now, in the chaotic, second week of May 2019, the Lakers were scrambling. They moved their attention to Vogel, who previously had an agreement to become a top assistant on Lue’s Lakers staff. The top job could be his.

But he wouldn’t go for it without Lue’s blessing.

“Someone is going to take the job,” Lue said to Vogel, according to a source familiar with the call. “Why not you?”

Sam Amick: Lakers-Clippers heat check: Where the battle for LA stands going into 2021

Of course, LeBron James wasn’t going to be honest about the Lakers-Clippers dynamic that he pretended didn’t exist.

Not yet, anyway.

The Western Conference Finals-bound Denver Nuggets were still looming and listening back on Sept. 17, when the Lakers star had watched the Clippers’ 3-1 collapse against Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic and company just like everyone else yet — somehow, someway — claimed his jaw hadn’t hit the floor.

So we’re standing in a socially-distanced media scrum/Zoom session inside the Walt Disney World Casitas convention center hallway back then, and James is putting his best political foot forward in the kind of way that ensured he wouldn’t wind up on his old buddy Michael Malone’s bulletin board.

“Um, I really don’t have a comment about it,” James said when I asked if he was surprised by the Clippers’ lifeless finish.

TAMPA, Fla. — Jama Mahlalela is a dad racing against the holiday clock in a Florida Walmart.

It’s Dec. 16. In a few days, his family will join him in Tampa Bay, where his employer, the Toronto Raptors, will play home games for at least the start of the 2020-21 NBA season. Mahlalela, an assistant coach with the team, would like his family’s temporary home to be holiday-ready for his five-year-old daughter, Mia, and three-year-old son, Jace, so he picks up a Christmas tree and a few other small gifts. He crosses his fingers that the family’s Volkswagen, which is being shipped from Toronto with the kids’ other presents in the trunk, arrives on time.

Earlier in the week, Mahlalela moved out of the team hotel situated next door to Amalie Arena and into a rental in Wesley Chapel, about a half-hour drive north of Tampa. He happily traded the proximity to work for the extra bedroom and outdoor space the house will provide his family.

“It’s a major change,” he says. “It’s been a lot, and I think there’s a lot of detail that goes into that. But our organization has been incredible. The people that are part of this thing, we found a way to do it.”

Lakers preview: LeBron vs. Father Time

LeBron James continues to resist the laws of aging. He was the MVP of the Finals and finished second to Giannis Antetokounmpo in the voting for the regular-season award. He’s kept himself in peak physical condition, and statistically, his performance level is virtually indistinguishable from what it was five years ago.

He also will be 36 years old when the next postseason begins, after coming off a short offseason and playing a compressed 72-game schedule. Normally you could probably laugh away any concerns; even if he drops off in the regular season, he’s always been able to dial it back up in the playoffs. Davis’ presence also provides a margin of error, a second star to take on the scoring and shot-creating load on nights James doesn’t have it.

Celtics preview: The tempting exception

Boston sent two second-round picks to generate a $28.5 million trade exception when Hayward left, and the Celtics have to figure out the best way to weaponize it. Astute observers fantasizing about a Celtics dream team will note that a certain Washington Wizards All-Star has a salary that can be accommodated within the exception; alas, it’s unlikely Boston has the asset collection to match what other suitors can put on the table in a Bradley Beal transaction.

A more realistic endgame is that it becomes a multi-pronged asset that Boston uses once at the trade deadline and again after the season. Boston can take on mid-sized salaries from teams looking to cut money, or the Celtics can add their 2021 first (they don’t really need another young player at this point) to up the ante and take in a bigger talent — especially one with multiple years left on his deal.

Mike Vorkunov: Who are the NBA’s best and worst team owners? League insiders vote

There is a lot that goes into winning in the NBA. The players are the stars, deservedly so, and the front-facing part of any organization. The head coach is a genius when his team succeeds and a putz when it loses. The lead basketball ops executives, who goes by many names now, puts it all together.

Then there is the team owner, who lifts the trophy when their franchise wins the title and fires the whole lot when they fail. Amidst the regular churn of the roster, the sidelines, and the front office, the spotlight often avoids them, even if they truly are the loudest voice in the organization.

Every year, the media that covers the NBA brings out its list of the league’s best players, its best coaches, or its top executives. They all matter. So does the owner, who makes the final decision on everything of note and is the only constant in even the most ever-changing team. There are perceptions, of course, of who is bad and who is good. Win-loss records are sometimes just a catch-all, though that’s not all that matters into separating the good from the bad in ownership.

Eric Nehm: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Mike Budenholzer dream of big things for Bucks

There is no handbook that shows exactly how to handle your star player signing a supermax extension to remain with your team for the next five years. So, on Tuesday, the Bucks exhaled after holding their breath from the nervousness of a longer-than-expected wait and embraced the celebratory tone set by their coach.

On Wednesday, with those positive vibes still oozing out of the practice facility as Budenholzer and Antetokounmpo spoke to reporters for the first time since the star’s announcement, the organization’s on-court leaders decided to move past celebration and instead contemplate what might seem like an impossible dream in the modern NBA.

“I know there’s probably more attention and more media when guys move and change, but I reflect on the guys who have stayed,” Budenholzer said. “For me, a guy like Tim Duncan, a Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, guys like that, that have stayed in one place and have made it kind of their legacy to win and win championships and win at a high level, wherever it is that they were drafted, whether it be a big market, a small market.”

The NBA does have certain numbers with their own mystique. The number 100 is significant because it is the point total of Wilt Chamberlain’s single-game scoring record. The number 38,387, while not on the tips of fans’ tongues, is important because it’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s record career point total.

And with the start of the 2020-21 NBA season just hours away, it’s time once again for us to reassess how the game’s great players compare to their predecessors. How does LeBron James stack up against Kareem? How close is Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning two-time MVP, to accomplishing something few, if any, players have ever accomplished? And while we’re at it, how close is Stephen Curry to dominating the Golden State Warriors’ all-time leaderboards?

Danny Leroux: Win projections for the East and West

For analysts, over/under totals are a great way to clarify your thoughts about teams both separately and collectively in terms of overall talent level, coaching, scheme fit, depth/injury risk and so much more. It has become a key part of my preseason work for both the RealGM Radio and Dunc’d On podcasts over the last half-decade, and my success rate is just under 60 percent for the full league and a stronger 70 percent on my more confident predictions. The uncertainty of this season due to the league finding its way through COVID-19, combined with a more compressed schedule, makes predictions more challenging but hopefully still viable at season’s end.

NBA Eastern Conference win total projections: From Bucks to Knicks

Miami Heat

Over/under: 44.5 wins

82-game equivalent: 50.7 wins

This line basically puts the Heat at the same level as their 2019-20 regular season, which may seem strange considering their run to the NBA Finals. But it looks like Miami will save its fastball for the playoffs again by bringing back Meyers Leonard and taking it easy with Goran Dragic. Even so, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro should continue to improve, and they only got 1,000 regular-season minutes from Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder last season, so Iguodala, Maurice Harkless and Avery Bradley are likely a depth upgrade overall. Reaching 51 wins is a lot, but a well-coached team with high-end talent and depth should be able to make it happen. If you are a Heat optimist, try to find favorable title odds because they definitely have the talent to get back to the Finals, especially in a weakened East, and could win it all with better health or at least open up a worthwhile late hedge.

NBA Western Conference win total projections: From Lakers to Warriors

LA Clippers

Over/under: 46.5 wins

82-game equivalent: 53 wins

A real challenge because the Clippers have more than enough talent to win 53 games and played above that pace in 2019-20 even with a slow start. However, a compressed season and superstar that we know will get plenty of nights off make 2020-21 a murkier decision. There may be motivation to rally from last year’s stunning collapse, but the Clippers are filled with veterans who know the postseason matters far more for their legacy, so this could really go either way. I am leaning under, but their conference and especially title odds may produce a better return for those who believe in their talent.

Indeed, the power of national television in the NBA ecosystem is such that the league has rushed back for an opening night in December despite having just ended its season in mid October — an extreme maneuver even if justified. The NBA set a sports record for shortest ever offseason against the protestations of LeBron James because a) Sacrificing Christmas Day games can’t happen and b) They never want to repeat the experience of losing playoff viewership to the NFL ever again.

The NBA’s fancy proprietary software, called “Game Scheduling System” or “the computer” more colloquially, drew up the lion’s share of this national TV schedule. In 2015, GSS officially took over for Matt Winick. These days, Head of NBA Basketball Strategy & Analytics Evan Wasch is the man with authority over the machine. Wasch, who’s increasingly gained a reputation as the league’s big ideas guy, is of a new generation. He’s a data driven former Sloan Conference presenter who helped introduce the All-Star Game Elam Ending.

Whereas Winick had a developed personal touch to his decision-making, Wasch has technological efficiency his side. It was badly needed in this truncated offseason. Somehow, Wasch and company built its first-half schedule over a mere three-week period, a herculean logistical effort when you consider how many competing considerations one must weigh between networks, teams and cities.

• Tier 1 | Tier 2 | Tier 3| Tier 4 | Series intro and Tier 5

While a lot of focus has and will continue to be on the “rankings” aspect of the Tiers, the process of going through and winnowing players down to the best of the best is as much the point as is the list itself. It is easy to say in casual conversation, “Oh, Player X is a top 15 player so …” Actually diving in and doing the compare and contrast through the lens of what one thinks wins in the modern NBA and how to best go about constructing a championship-level roster sharpens not just the opinions on each player, but also on the state of the game itself.

The Tiers themselves represent a snapshot in time. Even as I was completing the write-ups for the players in Tier 1, I was thinking about edge cases up and down the list and where I might have over- or underrated certain players as well as what players need to show in this coming season to improve or maintain their current positions.

Evaluating player talent and production in the NBA is constant and never-ending, and the main thing I hope this project has provided is a framework for those discussions using a common set of terms. Let’s do it again in a few months when we have the new information a new season provides.

Are you ready for some rankings?!?

The columns in this cheatsheet are sortable, with the default setting being for 8-cat Roto leagues (8/ROTO). If you play in 9-cat Roto, I suggest making very minor adjustments for the players with low or high turnovers, rather than extreme changes.

The second column is for 9-cat H2H leagues (9/H2H), where you’ll see players like Giannis and Zion move up the rankings, albeit not as much as some might expect.

Danny Leroux’s salary cap analysis

How does the NBA hard cap work? Triggers, headaches, and what’s next

If a team takes any of the actions that triggers the hard cap (which are listed below), they cannot go over that limit for any reason for any amount of time for that entire league year. In normal years, the league year turns over July 1. There are no workarounds and no exceptions, even for historically bad injury luck or temporarily going over the hard cap as part of a sequence of moves that eventually leaves a team under.

While it would make more sense thematically for the hard cap to be at the luxury tax line itself, as the basic idea is to prevent taxpaying teams from adding talent more easily, the CBA gives front offices a little extra wiggle room by having a slightly higher limit for the hard cap, which is called the apron. The apron used to be exactly $6 million above the luxury tax line but now it moves up and down a little with the cap, so it is $6.3 million higher right now.

Here are the numbers for the 2020-21 season:

Salary Cap: $109.14 million

Luxury Tax: $132.627 million

Hard Cap: $138.928 million

NBA Salary Cap: Preliminary team-by-team cap projections summer of 2021

While a lot will change between now and next summer, these team-by-team projections broadly assume their front offices not signing multi-season contracts this offseason unless specifically noted but they work as a rough estimate of what will be out there in the wild Summer of 2021.

Here is how all 30 teams’ books look, grouped by their projected 2021 spending power.

Ball, Fultz, Kuzma and more: Projecting rookie-scale negotiation outcomes

The NBA preseason is an important time for teams to evaluate new additions and see how players look after the offseason, but it is also a pivotal window for extensions. Over the next week, we’ll explore the different extension negotiations going on around the league, broken down by the type of negotiation and the timeline to get deals done.

While some agreements can come during the season, there are a few situations in which players and teams can only agree to terms before the regular season begins. The first group with immediate time pressure is those eligible for rookie-scale extensions, players who are former first-round picks. As these come before their fourth NBA season, the 2017 class is up for negotiation right now. Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo and De’Aaron Fox have already agreed to designated rookie extensions, but there has been nothing for the rest of the class.

This college basketball season is weird and unlike any other. We’re in the middle of a pandemic that is ravaging the United States, and it’s led to little eccentricities in the process that teams are still trying to navigate. Chief among those evaluation difficulties? How to actually evaluate the freshmen who have played thus far.

Because of the stop-start nature of the season due to COVID-19 pauses, and the abbreviated preseason and summer players got with their new collegiate programs, it’s hard to get a handle on what is and isn’t fair to say regarding the freshman class across college basketball. Remember: The 2020 recruiting class is regarded as one of the better ones to come across college hoops in the last decade. It’s deep at the top, and it’s strong throughout in terms of depth. And frankly, as scouts, we just haven’t seen quite the level of production we anticipated from those players coming into the year. Is that because they’re just not very good and were overrated at lower levels? Or is it because they haven’t been placed into a high-level situation to succeed? After all, freshmen have gotten less practice time to assimilate with their teammates and less developmental time in the summer than they typically get with coaching staffs or trainers.

(Illustration: Wes McCabe/The Athletic)

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