Golden State and Cleveland return at full strength
San Antonio reload around Big Three
Kobe Bryant could be playing final season
Phil Jackson under fire with the Knicks
The new NBA campaign tips off on Tuesday, with last season’s finalists the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers both under the spotlight on opening night.
Golden State will return with all its central figures – including league MVP Stephen Curry – while Cleveland resets at full strength after an injury-plagued finals which saw LeBron James shouldering the bulk of the team’s offense.
But how will the two teams fare in the face of beefed-up competition around the league?
Read on for the 10 most intriguing plotlines to follow in the 2015-2016 season:
Is Golden State favorite to defend the title?
Repeat champions are more the norm than an aberration in the dynasty-fueled NBA. In the past 30 years, only the 2004 Pistons, the 2008 Celtics and 2011 Mavericks failed to win more than one championship with the same generation of talent.
Golden State is younger and deeper than those Celtics and Mavs teams, which patched together a group of aging veterans, while Detroit’s attempt to repeat in 2005 was stifled by San Antonio winning the third of its five championships.
The Warriors will have all of last season’s core players returning, with forward Draymond Green opting to renew for $85 million over five years. Throw in the nucleus of sharpshooters Curry and Klay Thompson (44.3% and 43.9% from three-point range, respectively), along with finals MVP and defensive stalwart Andre Iguodala, and it’s hard to rank any other team ahead of the Warriors.
Also, coach Steve Kerr is back for his second season in charge (though he is currently sidelined while recovering from back surgery). One year, one championship – it’s tough to argue with that kind of track record.
How will LeBron James and the Cavaliers fare at full strength in the playoffs?
LeBron played a very un-LeBron-like finals without the offensive support of three-point and rebounding ace Kevin Love and never-met-a-shot-he-didn’t-like guard Kyrie Irving (who notched 57 and 55-point games last season). Left with a supporting cast that shrunk under the spotlight, pass-first LeBron turned into the type of player that shoots when he’s triple-teamed (his field-goal efficiency dropped from 48.5% to 39.8% in the finals) – and that’s not his game.
In a relatively soft Eastern Conference, the Cavs will be back in the finals, this time with a point to prove. Remember, it took LeBron two years to bring a championship to Miami, and he’s on course to repeat that feat in his second go-around in Cleveland.
Does San Antonio have anything left in the tank?
Yes. The threesome of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have a lot of miles on their odometers, but are no longer the best players on the Spurs. Big splash signings LaMarcus Aldridge (23.4 points, 10.2 rebounds per game), and David West (11.7 points, 6.8 rebounds) will provide a powerful low-post threat alongside ageless Duncan, while 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (2.3 steals per game) runs the floor on both ends. Danny Green and Patty Mills provide very capable cover for Parker in the backcourt.
The Spurs have enough firepower to get into the Western Conference finals, but any further in the competitive division will be a stretch.
How will year two of Phil Jackson’s Knicks reign – and his first-round pick Kristaps Porzingis – pan out?
Jackson earned 11 championship rings as a coach and two more as a player. This does not automatically qualify him as a capable NBA executive, however. Coaching and managing player rosters under the complicated NBA salary cap are two very different skill sets, as Jackson has come to find out (perhaps he will reconsider his fractious relationship with the late Bulls GM Jerry Krause).
His first season in charge was an exercise in ditching bloated contracts and outright tanking for a chance at one of the coveted top-two draft picks. And although the Knicks secured their worst season in franchise history (17-65), the draft lottery was unkind to them at No. 4.
With the Knicks’ highest pick since drafting Patrick Ewing 30 years ago, Jackson rolled the dice with 7-foot 3-inch Latvian Kristaps Porzingis, eliciting a stream of boos from hometown fans (one traumatized kid even cried). Granted, the 20-year-old has skills, with a soft shooting touch and good feet for his size, but staying healthy with his slight frame could be a challenge in the NBA.
There’s a good chance Jackson won’t even be around if and when Porzingis starts to blossom as a pro. Then again, the Knicks can’t get any worse, and he is fun to watch. Lastly, as long as ball-stopper Carmelo Anthony is around, Jackson’s beloved triangle offense will be implemented only in theory. Look for them to improve by 10 games.
Will the Lakers be relevant this year?
It depends how you define relevant. They won’t make the playoffs, but this could be Kobe Bryant’s swansong. The league’s third-highest career scorer and five-time champion has played only 41 games in the last two seasons after suffering a torn Achilles tendon in April 2013 and torn rotator cuff in January.
Bryant has suggested he will only play for the Lakers, but will be coming off the team’s books after making another $25 million this season (he is the NBA’s highest-paid player). Meanwhile the Lakers will be eager to free up cap space in order to rebuild around its young nucleus that includes big man Julius Randle and rookie point guard D’Angelo Russell (yes, he was named after the R&B singer).
The Lakers sustained back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in 20 years and – barring a blockbuster trade mid-campaign – will likely be looking at a third.
Can the Bulls make another push with its existing core?
A buzzer-beating corner shot from LeBron James prevented the Bulls from going up 3-1 against the Cavs in the second round of the playoffs. Chicago’s subsequent collapse proved to be the end for micromanaging coach Tom Thibodeau after five overachieving seasons marred by multiple injuries to former MVP Derrick Rose.
New chief Fred Hoiberg will still be fielding a loaded team, providing everyone stays healthy. Rose, All-Star Jimmy Butler, Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson make up a nucleus which will again push the Bulls far into the playoffs.
A second season of experience in the NBA will be huge for talented Montenegrin forward Nikola Mirotic, while last year’s 11th pick Doug McDermott will have something to prove after missing two months of his rookie season due to knee surgery. Six-foot 11-inch rookie Bobby Portis from Arkansas should provide much-needed backup cover at center.
If Rose can be persuaded to drive to the basket less often (and thus save his body) and defer on offense more, then Hoiberg’s speedup offense could flourish at the Madhouse on Madison.
Can Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook coexist with the Thunder?
They can and have been coexisting for seven years, but they’re not the best fit for each other.
2014 MVP Durant will be entering his ninth season (and last one under contract) coming off of foot surgery, eliciting a sense of “now or never” in Oklahoma City. But for rookie coach Billy Donovan, smoothing the transition from Durant being the first option on offense to an opening act for superstar point guard Westbrook should be at the top of his agenda.
With Durant out of the lineup since February of last season, Westbrook played his natural game – putting his head down and making a beeline to the basket – to superb effect. In one stretch, he posted six triple-doubles in eight games, garnering serious MVP consideration, despite missing 14 games with a broken hand early in the season. He finished first in the league in scoring (28.1), second in steals (2.09), fourth in assists (8.06), and – though he is only 6’ 3” – tied 7’ 1” Cavs center Timofey Mozgov for 36th in rebounding (7.23).
With a supporting cast that features defensive ace Serge Ibaka (2.4 blocks per game), the Thunder will be in the playoff mix. But in order to reach their full potential, Westbrook will have to be given free reign, something he has never had with Durant in the lineup.
Which team will be the surprise of the season?
In last season’s Western Conference semifinals, the Memphis Grizzlies had Golden State on the ropes. Up 2-1 at home in game four, with Curry enduring a horrid shooting slump (4-21 from 3-point range in games two and three) against defensive stalwart Tony Allen, things looked good for David Joerger’s team.
But Allen went down with a pulled hamstring in the first half, and with captain Mike Conley at half strength after suffering a facial fracture in the previous series, the Grizzlies folded like a deck of cards.
But this season should be different.
Memphis signed mercurial swingman Matt Barnes, coming off an effective postseason with the Clippers, specifically to add strength in the playoffs. Even at 35, Barnes can provide defensive cover for Allen while contributing long-range shooting on offense.
Re-signing Marc Gasol and adding 6’ 10” Brandon Wright from Dallas as a capable backup were more key moves that should have superfan Justin Timberlake dancing in the aisles come next May – and maybe even in June.
Who will lift the MVP trophy?
Last season’s race between Curry and James Harden went down to the wire, and it should be another tight finish this year. Curry and runner-up Harden will again be in the mix, as will four-time winner LeBron James.
But if Westbrook continues his form of last season, he’ll be the favorite. And if the New Orleans Pelicans can improve on their eighth seeding under new coach Alvin Gentry, then Anthony Davis (24.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.94 blocks, 1.5 steals) will be the runner-up. Look out for Portland point guard Damian Lillard’s numbers to jump without the departed Aldridge’s scoring.
Who will win Rookie of the Year?
This will come down to two young centers on bad teams: No. 1 pick Karl-Anthony Towns and No. 3 pick Jahlil Okafor. The edge goes to Okafor, who as an NCAA champion with Duke emerged a more complete player (though both fled after their freshman years). Towns, also 19, will play at Minnesota alongside ex-MVP Kevin Garnett and last season’s rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins, who will get first dibs on offense. Okafor will coincide with Philadelphia’s third-year player Nerlens Noel – who he’s been clicking with in the preseason.
Miami’s No. 10 pick Justise Winslow (another Dukie) may emerge as a dark horse if he can pry away minutes from Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng.
Bonus question: Who will win it all?
The Cavaliers will beat the Memphis Grizzlies 4-2 in the NBA Finals, bringing the first pro sports championship to Cleveland in 52 years.