With the NBA’s regular season kicking off next Tuesday, let’s take a quick look at some of the more intriguing storylines that will be settled in the weeks and months ahead.
Are the Cavs the team to beat in the East?
Though LeBron James has been preaching patience and telling those in the media that the Chicago Bulls are the more complete team at the moment, those who set the NBA Champions Odds believe that Cleveland (5/2) has the best shot at getting out of the East and winning the title this year. Anytime your roster contains the best player in the world, one of the best point guards in the league (Kyrie Irving), and arguable the best power forward in the league (Kevin Love) you have a chance to do something special.
In relatively short order, the Cavs have put together a fairly complete team containing a solid mix of young players on the rise and veterans who have been through the wars. I expect Cleveland to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, but if Derek Rose is healthy I would give the Bulls the edge due to their considerable size advantage inside. With Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson serving as the Cavs primary bigs/rim protectors, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them make a move to bolster their frontline sometime this year.
Can Chicago generate enough offense to win it all?
The Bulls (11/2) under Tom Thibodeau have been the epitome of a grind-it-out team. Last year they held opponents to the second lowest effective field percentage in the league, but come playoff time they were once again bounced early due to a combination of injuries and not having enough players who could consistently put the ball in the basket.
Entering this season, there is plenty of optimism in Chicago due to the return of Rose and the offseason acquisitions of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Doug McDermott. D-Rose will solve a lot of the offensive woes strictly by being on the court, and having a skilled big like Gasol should enable the Bulls to be able to occasionally dump the ball inside and get a few easy looks each game. On paper this is a more talented group than the Bulls teams of 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, and a key for Thibs will be to monitor minutes and not put his team in the ground before the playoffs begin.
How will the ‘Triangle’ work in New York?
Under new coach Derek Fisher, the Knicks (60/1) want to employ a more cohesive brand of basketball and get away from the isolation attack that has been their calling card in recent seasons. The Triangle Offense will limit the workload of Carmelo Anthony (in theory at least) and allow him to have more energy to close out games in the fourth quarter. This team will be limited defensively however and it’s not encouraging that they are counting on two injury ravaged forwards in Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire to contribute meaningful minutes.
The Knicks should make the playoffs, and there should be better spacing, more ball movement, and more evenly distributed shots on offense. At the end of the day though, the Triangle can only do so much for a roster that is devoid of talent in key areas.
More upside: The Wizards or Hornets?
I love what the Hornets (66/1) have been doing lately, and adding Lance Stephenson to the mix is definitely a win. Head case or not, Lance and his 7.4 win shares from last season are now in Charlotte and he should form a formidable trio with Big Al and Kemba Walker.
While the Hornets give maximum effort and their energy alone will get them a lot of wins, at the moment the Wizards (33/1) are the more ready-made team to do damage in the postseason. The experiences from last year should help John Wall and Bradley Beal, and bringing in Paul Pierce to play on the frontline with Nene and Marcin Gortat gives them a physical and experienced group down low. The only thing that could derail this group is injuries, as the Wizards definitely have some age on their roster.
Will the Heat remain competitive sans LeBron?
I might be in the minority here, but I still believe that the Heat (50/1) can be one of the top four teams in the East. Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts will be counted on to make up for some of the production now missing with LeBron in Cleveland, while Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade seem extremely motivated to prove that they can still be top players in this this league. Miami also has one of the best coaches in the NBA manning the sidelines, and much like Coach Pop does out West, I think Coach Spo will do a good job of managing the season and getting enough wins out of his team for them to remain in the conversation.
Can the Spurs stay healthy enough to repeat?
This always seems to be the question for the San Antonio (7/2). Everything broke exactly right for the Spurs last year on the injury front (i.e. no serious setbacks in the playoffs), and with them bringing back the entire band this year they are once again title favorites.
Coach Pop is the master at keeping minutes down and resting his players when he has too, as getting this team to April in one piece is always on the forefront of his mind. Barring a freak injury, this blueprint should enable the Spurs to have a representative chance at repeating as champs.
Will Golden State regret not trading Klay Thompson for Kevin Love?
The Warriors (25/1) effectively passed on acquiring Kevin Love in order to keep the Splash Brothers together. Klay Thompson and Steph Curry are the best back court tandem in the league, and last year netted 10.7 more points and 4.8 more assists per 100 possessions than the opposition when they shared the court together. Golden State likes the defensive ability of Thompson, as they often put him the other team’s premier perimeter player in order to shield Curry.
Passing on a player of Love’s caliber is certainly a gamble, one that could come back to bite them if and when Andrew Bogut breaks down again. While Thompson is one of the better two guards in the NBA, I believe they would’ve been better off obtaining Love and giving Klay’s minutes to some combination of Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, and Harrison Barnes.
Can the Clippers or Thunder finally get over the hump?
Perennial contenders, both the Clippers (8/1) and OKC (7/1) have fallen short of the ultimate prize in recent years.
The Clippers have tons of depth, but I think they will only take the next step if Blake Griffin continues to improve and start to routinely dominate and take over series’ in the postseason. He is young and powerful enough to have that kind of impact, and with Chris Paul consistently breaking down at the end of each season the Clippers need Blake to be the best player on the floor at all times.
OKC will always be dangerous as long as they have Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka. Despite the explosive talent of this three, the Spurs proved last year that they could outlast the Thunder with their superior depth and by having five guys on the court capable of hitting shots. It often felt like OKC was playing only three viable offensive players at a time in that series, and it might be more of the same this season unless someone like Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, or Sebastian Telfair starts contributing on a regular basis.
Who will have the better season: Mavs or Rockets?
Led by Mark Cuban and Darly Morey, the swiping between these two teams this offseason has been very entertaining. The Rockets missed out on their free agent targets this past offseason, failing to land Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, or Kyle Lowery. On top of that, one of their own in Chandler Parsons elected to sign a lucrative contract with the Mavs.
While the Rockets (20/1) have the younger star tandem in James Harden and Dwight Howard, I like the composition of the roster in Dallas (20/1). They have surrounded Dirk Nowitzki with enough playmakers to keep defenses honest, and I expect Tyson Chandler to have a bounce back year after flaming out in New York. Plus, anytime you have to choose between Rick Carlisle and Kevin McHale, always go with Carlisle.
With their ability to control the paint and the returning Derek Rose, I think this is the year the Bulls finally get past a LeBron James led team and make the Finals. Out West, the Thunder have been besieged by untimely injuries the last two postseasons - Westbrook in 2013 and Ibaka in 2014. Hopefully they are getting their bad luck out of the way early this year with Durant on the shelf to start the season and, and come playoff time a healthy OKC squad will athletically overwhelm the opposition and navigate their way through what is a brutally tough Western Conference.
In the Finals, I believe the triumvirate of Noah, Gibson, and Gasol will be too much for Ibaka to handle on his own. Chicago’s defense will do just enough to slow down Durant and Westbrook, and the Bulls will capture their first title since 1998.