16. Zion Williamson will lead New Orleans to the playoffs. The other day I found myself spiraling down a Zion highlight rabbit hole when I realized just how lucky we are to have a player who can unleash a true element of shock and awe whenever he checks into a game. There are things he does that transcend the laws of physics and bend our conception of reality. It’s literally human evolution in real time. Go have a look and treat yourself for the next 20 minutes.
Zion’s Pelicans have a lot of ground to make up on the Grizzlies to reach the playoffs, but they also have one of the easiest schedules—six of their eight opponents for the last regular season games are under .500. If Zion averages 35 minutes per game, there’s a conceivable timeline where the Pelicans finish 8-0 and the NBA’s own Eighth Wonder of the World establishes himself as an actual top-15 player.
17. The Spurs will be the Western Conference’s worst team, and Gregg Popovich will coach his last game (for the Spurs). Either the Spurs will do Spurs things, prove everyone wrong, and make a valiant run at the eight seed, or get blown out in their first game, shut DeMar DeRozan down, and take a long hard look at up-and-comers like Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, and Luka Samanic. I lean towards the latter.
And a few months after San Antonio misses the playoffs, Brooklyn will offer Pop an unseemly amount of money to coach Kevin Durant. Now that I have your attention, please pay attention whenever Popovich speaks about the various forms of racial discrimination and social injustice that plague this country. Few are able to deliver a more concise, clear-eyed message.
18. Kawhi Leonard will dunk with his left hand. If I could sit down with Kawhi Leonard the first question I’d ask is “Why do you dunk with your left hand instead of your (dominant) right, whether nobody is around or you’re going through traffic?” This is not the “correct” first question, but throughout Toronto’s very first championship run last year, these dunks kept happening, this one being his piece de resistance. The habit carried over to Los Angeles, but never quite exploded into the public talking point my brain feels it should. Anyway, Kawhi is awesome and I miss his southpaw smashes.
19. Danny Green will be the third most important Laker (J.R. Smith, who last played real NBA minutes 616 days ago, will be the least). Apologies to Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Dwight Howard, and, of course, Dion Waiters, but the Lakers aren’t winning anything meaningful if Green isn’t consistently able to stay in front of the opposing team’s most threatening guard and/or drill a majority of his open shots. Of all LeBron James’ three-point assists, no Laker was at the receiving end more often than Green. He’s reliable and has championship experience. L.A. can’t have too many of those two qualities.
20. T.J. Warren vs. Jimmy Butler will be worth all the popcorn GIFs. Last time Miami played Indiana, T.J. Warren and Jimmy Butler decided they were not friends. Afterwards, Butler poured kerosene on their beef, lit a match, and then threw it onto a grill. The BBQ is scheduled for August 10.
21. Marcus Smart’s trash talk will be even more entertaining than his basketball. This is more a plea than a prediction, but one can only pray that TV broadcasts from inside the bubble will let us hear the epic trash talk that’s continuously spewed from some of the league’s most heroic characters—like the Celtics’ Marcus Smart, arguably the most confident person who’s ever lived. Time will tell just how loud voices carry in an empty gym, but every time play halts (especially when someone is shooting a free throw) you can be sure Smart will do everything in his power to piss off every player on the opposing team. He’s like the CEO of making people mad.