After a chaotic offseason that saw the NBA draft and free agency compressed into a single week -- followed almost immediately by abbreviated training camps amid teams adjusting to newly implemented COVID-19 testing protocols -- the chase is on to see if the Los Angeles Lakers will be able to repeat as champions or if one of the several potential challengers will be able to knock them off.
ESPN spoke to eight scouts and executives about everything from who had the best and worst offseasons to who will lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy next summer.
Here's what they had to say.
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Who is the best player in the NBA?
This time around, those roles are reversed. James dominated the balloting, earning seven of the eight votes of those polled, only failing to get all eight because of how the question was interpreted.
"If we're talking about the best player over the course of a season, I'm not picking LeBron," said the Eastern Conference executive who picked Antetokounmpo instead. "If we are talking about in the playoffs, it's probably LeBron, because he always is."
For just about everyone else, however, the answer was simple.
"Until you can find someone otherwise, you can't prove anyone is more reliable or consistent or important to their team winning than LeBron," a Western Conference scout said. "People may want to argue [Anthony Davis] is the best player on that team, but the burden of proof is on everyone else right now. He does it everywhere, he does it every single year."
Still, for all the praise for James, at least one voter has his potential successor for the throne picked.
"If you put a gun to my head and you have to go win a playoff series, I'd say LeBron," an Eastern Conference scout said. "But I'll tell you what: That motherf---er in Dallas is coming. ... That dude is going to win multiple MVPs."
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Who will win MVP this season?
With James already making nods toward prioritizing the pursuit of a fifth ring over chasing a fifth MVP award after a short offseason, he didn't receive a vote.
Instead the leader was that guy in Dallas, Doncic. Multiple voters said that Antetokounmpo, who has won in each of the past two seasons, would suffer from voter fatigue.
"It's hard to see Giannis winning three in a row," the Western Conference scout said, "and I think there's more of an opportunity for Luka to kind of put on an MVP show and do more on an individual basis."
Jokic, meanwhile, received multiple votes after helping Denver reach the Western Conference finals.
"I thought he should have gotten more respect each of the past two years," an Eastern Conference executive said, "and now he's coming off this performance in the bubble."
A Western Conference executive predicted that Denver will pile up regular-season wins.
"Jokic is the engine of that team," the executive said.
One Eastern Conference executive refused to discount Antetokounmpo, on the belief that the Bucks will be good enough for him to win the award again.
"I think they'll be really good in the regular season again," the executive said, "and being a star on the best team tends to work out in terms of being in the MVP race."
Which team had the best offseason?
Not surprisingly, the team that won the title and got its two superstars to recommit long term received the most votes.
"The Lakers got Anthony Davis and LeBron James to recommit," an Eastern Conference exec said. "The Lakers should be a little nervous about LeBron long term, but it's still good for them."
Several people also pointed to the Lakers' signing of Marc Gasol for the minimum as a move that could pay dividends this season.
"Gasol, what an under-the-radar pickup there," an Eastern Conference scout said. "To play solidly and a high basketball IQ. ... Now, [JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard] were long and athletic and protected the rim, so they lost that.
"But while Gasol may not protect the rim like them, he's better at everything else."
Also receiving praise were the Hawks, who reshaped their team this offseason by signing Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic in free agency, along with guards Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn. Rival scouts and executives also liked the drafting of Onyeka Okongwu sixth overall.
The addition of Nate McMillan as an assistant under head coach Lloyd Pierce was also mentioned as a positive, and some even lumped in the trade for Clint Capela back in February, as Capela didn't play for the Hawks last season because of plantar fasciitis.
"I think Atlanta is going to make a big jump," another Eastern Conference scout said. "They got the two guys [Bogdanovic and Gallinari], and they got Capela, who basically is a third free agent.
"They're taking the pressure off all their young guys, including Trae Young, who doesn't have to be the guy every single possession. Both in terms of talent and dynamics, they did a great job."
Oklahoma City earned praise for collecting draft picks and assets, and Philadelphia was touted for hiring Daryl Morey to run the front office, tapping Doc Rivers to coach and balancing out the roster.
Which team had the worst offseason?
"There might not be a close second," an Eastern Conference scout said. "They are in a tough spot."
"They are just completely directionless right now," a Western Conference scout said. "Arguably one of the best players in the world doesn't want to be there. Not really sure about the Westbrook trade.
"They're halfway in between being a potential bottom-half playoff team or one of the worst teams in the league if they blow it up."
The team that had the most confusing offseason for rivals was Detroit. While some understood passing on re-signing Christian Wood, the decision to instead sign several other centers was seen as odd. So too was the process of stretching contracts essentially to be able to sign Mason Plumlee, who in the eyes of most executives is simply a good backup.
"[The Pistons], to me, were the worst offseason by far," an Eastern Conference executive said. "I don't know what they are doing at all. I know they want to build long term, but I have no concept of what they are doing. If they hit on [seventh overall pick Killian] Hayes, and [other first-rounders Isaiah] Stewart and [Saddiq] Bey are good, none of this other s--- matters that much. But I don't know what their plan is."
Milwaukee's fate, meanwhile, is tied to whether Antetokounmpo chooses to sign a potential supermax contract extension, especially after the Bucks traded away several years' worth of control of their drafts to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Jrue Holiday.
But the issues with how the Bucks handled their offseason went beyond that and included both the botched move to get Bogdan Bogdanovic and the response from Milwaukee, signing Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes, Torrey Craig and D.J. Augustin to bolster the bench.
"Milwaukee was kind of left holding the bag," an Eastern Conference executive said. "A lot of it seemed to be just because they were disappointed they didn't execute their plan, or they didn't have a better plan. It just seemed like after the [Bogdanovic] deal they were scrambling."
Where will James Harden be playing after the trade deadline?
1. Houston Rockets: 6
T2. Brooklyn Nets: 1
T2. Philadelphia 76ers: 1
While it's clear Harden would like to be traded, making a move is far easier said than done, at least in the eyes of rival scouts and executives. Harden's large contract -- and interest in extending that contract with only a handful of teams -- makes it difficult to match salaries, especially if the Rockets maintain their demands for a package of potential young stars and a boatload of future first-round picks.
Those factors together led most to say that despite current appearances, Harden won't be on the move anytime soon.
"Who f---ing knows, man," an East exec said with a laugh. "I don't think he gets traded unless other teams get involved and there becomes a bidding war of sorts. Otherwise I think they just hold pat. They're not going to trade him for crap."
Two others, however, gave one vote each to the two teams that have been linked the most with Harden: the Nets and the 76ers.
"I still think [Brooklyn] can put together the best package for him," a Western Conference executive said. "Maybe someone else can, but theirs is the best one I see."
The case for Harden to Philadelphia, meanwhile, is simple: If the 76ers are willing to move Ben Simmons, there likely isn't a better piece Houston is going to get.
"The universe of options is limited," an Eastern Conference scout said.
What team will surprise -- either in good or bad ways -- this season?
1. Houston Rockets: 2
T2. Milwaukee Bucks: 1
T2. Oklahoma City Thunder: 1
T2. Phoenix Suns: 1
T2. Golden State Warriors: 1
T2. Portland Trail Blazers: 1
Nothing sums up the current chaos in Houston more than these two polar opposite answers to the question of what team could surprise this season -- both of which went to the Rockets, the only team to get more than one vote but for totally different reasons.
"Houston is going to surprise people when they continue to win a lot despite everyone hating each other," an Eastern Conference executive said.
"Even if Harden is there," a Western Conference executive said, "I think Houston is going to be bad.
"The whole situation is toxic."
Meanwhile, the Warriors -- despite spending oodles of money on Kelly Oubre Jr., drafting James Wiseman and getting Stephen Curry back healthy and Draymond Green back motivated -- have skeptics about their chances in the West this season.
"I think they have almost no shot at the playoffs," an East exec said. "Unless Draymond has a renaissance, Steph might be everything that he's ever been and they still might not make the playoffs."
Atlanta received a vote to exceed expectations after its impressive offseason, while Milwaukee was tapped by someone to take a step back.
Oklahoma City, on the other hand, was picked to surpass the meager expectations for the trade-happy Thunder.
"Whatever the over/under is for OKC, I'll take the over," an Eastern Conference executive said. "I think they'll win a few more games than people think. They do a really good job with development, and I think [Al] Horford is going to be good for them. They're the best at turning guys around and turning them into something."
Meanwhile, two Western Conference teams hoping to make noise in the playoffs -- the Suns and Trail Blazers -- also received positive affirmation in that direction after the moves they made this offseason.
"I like Phoenix," an Eastern Conference scout said. "I really like what they did this summer, and it's not just Chris [Paul]. They got some really good, solid role players on minimums. [Langston] Galloway and [E'Twaun] Moore are guys who you know what you're going to get and they are great locker room guys too. Not world-beaters, but you've got to have guys like that on good teams. And I think [Paul] will be huge for [Devin] Booker."
Which teams will win the East and West, and who wins the Finals?
1. Milwaukee Bucks: 5
2. Philadelphia 76ers: 2
3. Brooklyn Nets: 1
1. Los Angeles Lakers: 5
2. LA Clippers: 2
3. Portland Trail Blazers: 1
1. Los Angeles Lakers: 4
T2. LA Clippers: 1
T2. Brooklyn Nets: 1
T2. Milwaukee Bucks: 1
T2. Philadelphia 76ers: 1
After the Bucks and Lakers were the best teams in each conference last season and neither conference saw any team take a significant step forward this offseason, there was plenty of support for those two teams to emerge from their respective halves of the bracket next summer -- and for the Lakers to claim another title.
"LeBron and AD are too good," said a Western Conference executive who picked the Lakers to win the title. "And I think they got better."
But five different teams were given championship votes -- including one each for the Bucks, Clippers, Nets and 76ers.
Several who picked Milwaukee to make it out of the East almost did so by default, citing the lack of any of its challengers at the top of the conference to get dramatically better and the addition of Holiday, even with some of the depth losses the Bucks incurred as a result.
The East exec who picked the Bucks to win the title, however, scoffed at the notion that they're a team in crisis after two dominant regular seasons in a row.
"I was all-in on the Bucks last year," the exec said, "and the narrative pisses me off that [Mike Budenholzer] can't coach, Bud might get fired. This team has won 60 games two straight years. Just let them do their thing and figure it out.
"It's not easy to win. You don't win easy."
One East scout, on the other hand, joked that he was "being a little contrarian" by picking the Nets to win the title and fully admitted the team's chemistry could blow up. But he said their talent, if it clicks, is undeniable.
"They have so much talent," the scout said. "They're just loaded."
The Sixers, meanwhile, got a vote after their frenetic offseason makeover, with an Eastern Conference exec believing in Doc Rivers' ability to connect with his players and just a better ecosystem in general in Philadelphia.
"If they're healthy, they have the talent, and Doc has dealt with players like Ben [Simmons] and Joel [Embiid] successfully in the past," the exec said. "I think they'll have greater confidence in him than the previous coach, and in their staff in general. You've got a pretty solid group there."
Then, finally, there were the Clippers, who were the overwhelming picks to win the title last year before falling short in the bubble in stunning fashion in their second-round collapse to the Denver Nuggets.
"The noise around them has been overblown," another East exec said. "They were up 3-1 in the second round and had three really bad second halves. I thought they were likely to be the best team last year had they been healthy and feel the same way this year."