In November of 2016, the Sports Illustrated staff made predictions about what it thought the NBA would look like in 2020. The predictions ranged from how LeBron James would be performing and where Russell Westbrook would be playing to if the NBA would have robot referees and if people would still use NBA Twitter.
No one did, nor could they have, predicted exactly what would have happened to the league this season. But amid the NBA’s hiatus, here’s a look back at some of what the SI staff got right and what didn’t exactly go as we thought it would:
Is LeBron Still the Best Player in the World?
What we said then: “NOPE. By any objective measure—including the last three Finals—Kevin Durant is the best player in the world. Anthony Davis and Steph Curry are battling for No. 2. LeBron is still good enough to scare people, but right now, he's not even the best player in the East. Giannis Antetokounmpo is putting up 27, 12, and 8 every night. It's ridiculous.*”
Verdict: It depends. Just before the league took its indefinite leave amid the COVID-19 pandemic, James was playing some of his best basketball of the season. This year, James is leading the NBA in assists for the first time in his 17-year career. He rebounded well from his injury riddled 2019 season, plus James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers (we didn’t predict that) were the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed. Is he still the best player in the world, though? An answer to that conversation certainly isn’t as strong as the all-caps “NOPE” from 2016, but it’s tough to say it’s fully wrong either. As we predicted in 2016, Giannis Antetokounmpo has made a legitimate case to be the game’s top player. So too have a host of others. This question is still very much up for debate and we now have even more time to discuss it.
What Happened to the Warriors?
What we said then: “While Steph Curry and Kevin Durant fell short in their first trip to the Finals together, vanquished again by LeBron James in another seven-game classic, an off–season spent investing in hand transplants for Zaza Pachulia and months of rigorous drill work for JaVale McGee finally produced a title in 2018…Another title followed in 2019 and the Dubs now look primed to pull of the NBA's first three-peat since the Kobe/ShaqLakers.”
Verdict: Not exactly correct, but not too far off either. While the particulars of the Warriors dynasty are a little bit different than we predicted, the team did have a chance to pull of the NBA’s first three-peat since the Kobe/ShaqLakers. Their opportunity came in 2019, though, and not 2020. Even heading into this season, it would have been tough to see the Warriors being just 15-50 through 65 games of action, but injuries to Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry did the team in this year. Durant, too, has since departed to the Brooklyn Nets.
What Team Does Russ Play For?
What we said then: “The Heat. He spent two more years in OKC after KD left…He had a player option in 2018, and he used it to go play with Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, and Jayson Tatum in Miami...”
Verdict: Again, not exactly correct, but not too far off. Westbrook ended up playing three more seasons with the Thunder after Durant left for the Warriors, not two. And instead of signing with a Heat team led by Whiteside-Winslow-Tatum, Westbrook was dealt to the Rockets to join another former Oklahoma City guard, James Harden.
Did the Process Work?
What we said then: “The Sixers are a rising Eastern Conference playoff team…Ben Simmons is a stud, forming a 1-2 punch ascending into true title contention as the franchise essentially waited out LeBron’s prime. The Process has worked and Sam Hinkie has earned begrudging respect, even from many former critics. He is overseeing a new rebuilding project, and the Sixers even swap him a second round pick for old times’ sake.”
Verdict: Unclear. Rising is a very relative term in this situation. They are certainly a staple of the Eastern Conference postseason and could (maybe should) be a true title contender. But they aren’t exactly at the top of the East either. The team did wait out LeBron’s prime—or at least his prime in the Eastern Conference—and could bring in a new head coach heading into next season if it underperforms in the postseason (if we have one).
We were correct to predict that Hinkie would earn begrudging respect for his team-building process.
Who’s the Best Big Man in Basketball?
What we said then: “…Pledging to take the Timberwolves “Light years beyond light years,” [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg poached Mike D’Antoni from the Rockets over the summer, demanding that [Karl-Anthony] Towns be utilized as a point-center, full-time, in the “Seven Seconds or Less” framework. Towns, 25, is coming off his long-anticipated first MVP selection and a franchise-record 60-win season, but D’Antoni’s arrival has been a revelation, as he’s averaged 27 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists through 10 games.”
Verdict: Wrong. Towns is an All-Star, but he certainly isn’t the best big man in the NBA. Plus, Mike D’Antoni doesn’t coach the Mark Zuckerberg-owned Timberwolves.
How Many Titles Has Brad Stevens Won?
What we said then: “Zero. The Celtics never landed that one, transformative player and Danny Ainge is still swimming in assets. Even though Stevens is one of the most respected coaches in the league, he was never able to make up significant ground and overcome the steep odds of winning a title…Boston is competitive, but even a smart coach with capable players can fall short of the league's upper echelon.”
Verdict: Mostly true, though, there’s a scenario in which one could argue Kyrie Irving was Boston’s transformative player even if he was there for just two seasons. Boston still is “swimming in assets,” though some of those assets are not just picks, but instead budding stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Boston has a nice talent base, as we predicted, but it probably does still fall just a tad short of the league’s upper echelon.
Are the Knicks Still a Dumpster Fire?
What we said then: “Sort of. Kristaps Porzingis is the Dirk-meets-KG “unicorn” Knicks fans always thought he’d be (well, ignoring their lack of faith on draft night). He averages 20 and 10, while protecting the rim adequately and flashing impressive range. But New York is up against the cap thanks to James Dolan’s insistence to re-up an aging Carmelo Anthony in 2019 and sign a slightly less aging Chris Paul to a big deal the year before. Dolan has always loved stars in decline.”
Verdict: Wrong. The correct answer to the aforementioned question is yes, the Knicks are still a dumpster fire. Porzingis, though, is averaging nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, just doing it on the Mavericks.
Do People Still Use NBA Twitter?
What we said then: “Hell yeah. Twitter was so toxic and miserable that everyone but about 3,000 hardcore basketball fans abandoned it halfway through 2018. Now NBA Twitter is the only Twitter that exists. It's much better.”
Verdict: True. Twitter still can be toxic and miserable and while NBA Twitter is not the only Twitter that exists, it’s still, as we wrote in 2016, “much better.”
Who is on Team USA in 2020?
What we said then: “The roster was stacked over the summer, per usual, and had no problem cruising to another gold medal. Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry (in his first Olympics!), Kyrie Irving, James Harden, D’Angelo Russell, Devin Booker, Myles Turner, Jabari Parker, and Team USA mainstay Carmelo Anthony, who claimed his fourth gold.”
Verdict: Not quite. First off, there will be no Olympics this summer. Second of all, Jabari Parker will not be on any future Team USA Olympic rosters.
What Do Jerseys Look Like?
What we said then: “I’m not sure how I feel about the new Nike jerseys introduced this season. On one hand, the technology is so advanced that players literally don’t sweat anymore. It’s amazing how far moisture wicking has come in the last few years. On the other hand, where does all the sweat go?”
Verdict: Not exactly sure how to evaluate this prediction other than to say, a few teams have redesigned their primary jerseys since 2016 and dozens more secondary jersey designs have been introduced as well.
Are the Spurs Still Winning 50 Games Every Year?
What we said then: “Absolutely. Becky Hammon took over for Popovich in 2018, and Kawhi Leonard has been an MVP candidate every year since 2015. The LaMarcus Aldridge situation is still pretty weird, but Dejounte Murray is a borderline All-Star. They're right back in the mix with the Wolves and Warriors in the West, and this past summer they got Marc Gasol.”
Verdict: Mostly false, but there are a few grains of truths include in our prediction. Technically, the Spurs haven’t won more than 50 games since the 2016-17 season, though they did win 47 and 48, respectively in each of the last two seasons. This year, however, they are 27-36 and were on pace to miss the postseason for the first time since the 1996-97 season.
Becky Hammon also hasn’t taken over for Gregg Popovich yet, but that’s not a crazy prediction either as it could happen when Popovich does leave the franchise. Plus, the LaMarcus Aldridge situation is, in fact, “still pretty weird,” and Kawhi Leonard has been an “MVP candidate every year since 2015,” just he’s no longer in a Spurs uniform.
What Will the Sneaker Scene Look Like?
What we said then: “We are years removed from when Nike released two pairs of auto-lacing sneakers—the Nike Mag from Back to the Future II and the Nike HyperAdapt 1.0…The signature lifestyle sneaker market has blown up. As sneaker culture and the “cozy boy” movement evolved, more brands offered less signature on court models. Kanye West has led Adidas basketball to new heights after designing sneakers for every player on the three stripes roster...”
Verdict: True. Nike does have self-lacing sneakers, sneaker culture has “blown up” and while Kanye West hasn’t taken Adidas basketball to new heights, West has certainly made his presence known in the sneaker industry.
Will Anthony Davis and Boogie Still Be Trapped?
What we said then: “The NBA’s two biggest stranded stars are (almost) no longer mired in the throes of mediocrity, for fear not, free agency has come and gone… Boogie hit free agency in the summer of 2018 and promptly signed with the Lakers…As for Davis, well, he’s 27 and in the last year of his contract with the Pelicans. Suitors are lining up for Davis, who’s managed to stay healthy, made the All-Star game every year and made an appearance on Sesame Street discussing unibrow self-confidence with Bert and Ernie.”
Verdict: This is true in the broadest sense as both Cousins and Davis are no longer stuck on mediocre teams. DeMarcus Cousins did sign with the Lakers, just he did so after stints with Davis and the Pelicans and Curry and the Warriors. He also was waived by Los Angeles after failing to appear in a game as he rehabs from offseason knee surgery.
As for Davis, suitors did line up for him and he has made the All-Star game every year since our predictions. He is certainly no longer in the “throes of mediocrity,” playing with the Lakers and LeBron James. Plus, maybe his Sesame Street bit is in production and we just haven’t heard about it yet. It would certainly make for great quarantine content.
What’s the Biggest off-the-court- Controversy?
What we said then: “Technology is still a few years away from making the biometric testing issue ESPN’s Pablo Torre wrote about in 2014 really explode. In the meantime, the biggest off-court issue facing the NBA is one they’ve dealt with for years—marijuana.”
Verdict: False. While the NBA is still figuring out how to deal with marijuana use in the sport, there have been bigger issues this season. Acceptable answers to the aforementioned question would include, the NBA being at the center of geopolitical tensions between the United States and China and/or how the NBA is dealing with a global pandemic that has brought the world to a halt.
Did the Timberwolves “Make” It?
What we said then: “The Timberwolves are dope, and their playoff clashes with the aging Warriors have been legendary. Game 7 of the 2017 conference finals was like the climactic scene of every great boxing movie, without the fear of paralysis or the constant shots of a worried girlfriend/family member watching on T...”
Verdict: False. The Timberwolves are not “dope,” and they never did meet the Warriors in the postseason. Sports Illustrated was oddly high on Minnesota in 2016. Let’s check in another four years if Minnesota has “made it.”
Has Basketball Returned to Seattle?
What we said then: “Not yet, but the plans are in place for the NBA’s return to Seattle. There’s still plenty left to work out in terms of league logistics, but the vision is there and the facilities are beginning to materialize...”
Verdict: Mostly true. There is still not a basketball franchise in Seattle, but plans never took shape the way we predicted.
Are Robots Refereeing Games?
What we said then: “No, thankfully. It was a huge relief when owners voted against installing robot referees over the summer. First of all, too many star players still want to argue with human refs…”
Verdict: True. But baseball has discussed “robot umpires,” and the NBA does now have challenges in its gameplay. The latter of those points might have been tough to predict in 2016.
How Good Are the Lakers?
What we said then: “The Lakers were finally able to blossom after Kobe Bryant's overdue retirement. The developmental curves of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram were directly linked to Bryant’s decision to leave the limelight and enjoy fatherhood and tech ventures…Former juggernauts have slowed down and the Lakers are primed for their first title run since Bryant and Pau Gasol led them to a championship in 2010. That 10-year wait was well worth it for Lakers fans, as this team shows no signs of slowing down over the next decade.”
Verdict: First half, false. Second half, true. While the Lakers have a wildly different core than we expected them to have in 2016, Los Angeles was in the middle of their first title run since their 2010 title before the league stopped play. The franchise’s arrow is certainly pointing way up with James and Davis leading the way and as we said in 2016, the team “shows no signs of slowing down over the next decade.”
Do NBA Teams Still Go to the White House?
What we said then: “The NBA experienced eight joyous years with a basketball-crazed president whose morals and values aligned with the league's players. Things took a swift turn when Barack Obama left office in 2017 and ceded power to Donald Trump, whose campaign ran counter to everything the NBA has stood for as one of the country’s most inclusive leagues… He will leave office in January 2021, and the NBA couldn’t be more excited to return to Washington to shake President-elect Mark Cuban’s hand.”
Verdict: True. NBA teams have not visited the White House while President Trump has been in office. It remains to be seen what will happen in January 2021 and beyond.
What Do the NBA Record Books Look Like?
What we said then: “Over the last 18 months, LeBron James moved past both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to claim the No. 3 spot on the NBA’s all-time scoring list…Meanwhile, James has also surpassed 9,000 career assists, moving him into the NBA’s all-time top 10 and making him the only player in history to rank in the top 10 in both points and assists…Out West, Stephen Curry celebrated his daughter Riley’s eighth birthday by moving past Ray Allen to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time three-pointers list.”
Verdict: Mostly true. In late January, James passed Bryant after having previously passed Jordan to claim the No. 3 spot on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. James also eclipsed 9,000 career assists this season, doing so in late December.
Curry, on the other hand, still hasn’t taken over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time three-pointers list, but that prediction will also come true soon enough.