Charles Barkley can be called many things but guarded in his opinions will never be one of those. Before the 2020–21 NBA season tipped off just before Christmas, Barkley went on record with a pair of predictions about the Eastern Conference playoff picture that turned out to be pretty close to the bull’s eye. One of the teams is already safely in the playoff bracket; the other plays Tuesday night for a chance to grab a spot.
Barkley was high on the veteran additions both teams made in the brief offseason. Coupled with the expected regression of some 2020 playoff clubs, Chuck made picking the two squads for the postseason his first “gau-run-tee” of the new season. Some fans might not like Barkley’s acerbic style, and he has his faults as a college basketball analyst (yikes), but the man knows his NBA.
What teams did Barkley see as breaking through in 2020–21?
Charles Barkley believed in the Atlanta Hawks
Charles Barkley’s guarantees aren’t always accurate. For instance, taking the Denver Nuggets over the Utah Jazz in Game 3 of last season’s first round didn’t turn out so well. But in fairness to Barkley, he was only 38 points away from being correct. Everyone is entitled to a near-miss now and again. But when Barkley put his finger on the Atlanta Hawks, he was on to something.
Atlanta started fast with four wins in their first five games. But things began to go sideways from there. The Hawks were 10–19 from Jan. 2-Feb. 28, with two four-game losing streaks thrown in. They won consecutive games just once in that stretch. After a 109–99 loss to the Miami Heat, Atlanta was 14–20 and two games behind the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers for the final play-in spot.
Lloyd Pierce was fired on March 1, and assistant coach Nate McMillan reluctantly accepted the interim head coaching duties. To say the Hawks took to the change well would be a massive understatement. Atlanta ran off eight consecutive wins, won 11 of its next 12, and finished strong with seven wins in its final eight games.
Their 41–31 mark gave the Hawks the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference and a first-round matchup with the New York Knicks. It looked shaky at times, but Charles Barkley had the right idea with Atlanta. Speaking of looking shaky … .
The Washington Wizards nearly got in the 2020 playoffs
In the disrupted 2019–20 season, the Washington Wizards were among the nine Eastern Conference teams invited to the Orlando bubble for the seeding games. At the time play was halted in March, the Wizards trailed the Orlando Magic by 5½ games. When the bubble wrapped, Washington had gone 1–7 and fallen to 10th place. Whoops.
But Charles Barkley liked the addition of Russell Westbrook, apparently, and boldly marched out on a limb with a guarantee. That one is still in the air, but that the Wizards are still in the discussion at all is something of a minor miracle. If you thought the Hawks were in danger of missing the postseason, the Wizards desperately wanted you to hold their beer.
On April 5, Washington was 17-32 and had lost four straight games. That was good for 13th in the East, but still within 3½ games of the 10th-place Bulls. Westbrook went supernova the rest of the way. Washington won 17 of its last 23 games and not only got into the play-in, but the Wizards also climbed to eighth place. They can lock up the No. 7 seed with a victory Tuesday night over the wounded Boston Celtics.
Charles Barkley won’t change, and that’s a good thing
A Hall of Fame player with a nice TV gig, Charles Barkley is what he is. He remains polarizing because of some of his stances, both basketball-related and otherwise, but is entertaining TV. His sometimes-unfriendly banter with Shaquille O’Neal adds value to the broadcasts on TNT because, in a sport that is all about the rings, Barkley comes up famously short there.
But give the man his due on his first 2020–21 guarantee. Half of that prediction is already locked in, and the Wizards can make it 100% accurate with two chances in the play-in tournament to get one victory.
Statistics information courtesy of Basketball Reference.