Oh, glorious day: The National Basketball Association is back! To get you ready for opening night, here’s a list of not one, not two…not five, not six, not seven…but 10 storylines to know about going into the 2015-2016 NBA season.
1. Western Dominance
I didn’t think the quality disparity separating the NBA’s Eastern and Western conferences could get any wider from last year. I was wrong. This year’s West is something beyond a bloodbath: It boasts four teams—Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Los Angeles (Clippers)—each of which might have been runaway favorites in other years.
By my count, only two teams that made the playoffs in the West last year have gotten worse (Portland and Dallas); the other playoff teams from last year have undergone slight to drastic improvements. Out of the non-playoff teams, only one has gotten slightly worse (Denver), with the rest ranging from staying the same to getting stronger. To borrow a phrase from the soccer world, the West is undeniably the conference of death.
Meanwhile, in the East, only the Cleveland Cavaliers are a serious title threat. Although Vegas has given Cleveland the best odds of any team to win it all, they’ve arguably declined due to the injuries they’re dealing with—their second-best player, for example, has no timetable for a return. The Atlanta Hawks, the East’s top regular-season team last year, will be nowhere near as good this year, and while it’s true that many other teams in the East have marginally improved, my impression is that the West’s top seven playoff teams are better than the entirety of the East, save for Cleveland. If I’m right, that represents historically unprecedented lopsidedness.
2. James Harden’s MVP Revenge
It’s no secret that Houston’s James Harden, who finished second to Golden State’s Stephen Curry for last year’s most valuable player honors, feels he was snubbed. His argument is that Curry had much more to work with than he did:
“I know I was the MVP. That’s 100 percent given all the things that happened last season. Credit the Golden State Warriors for an unbelievable year. They had an unbelievable team, coaching staff, everything. But that award means most valuable to your team. We finished second in the West, which nobody thought we were going to do at the beginning of the year even when everybody was healthy. We were near the top in having the most injuries. We won our division in a division where every single team made the playoffs.”
It’s true the injury bug never really bit the Warriors. According to ESPN’s Kevin Pelton, the Warriors gave up 1,252 minutes to injury during the season, the least of any team. (Recall that in the NBA Finals the Warriors were at full strength, whereas the Cavaliers were missing two of their Big Three.)
But unless it can be shown that voters gave disproportionate weight to wins and losses when determining MVP, this argument actually goes against Harden. How so? The Warriors were so dominant, so ruthlessly decisive, that Curry played a full four minutes less than Harden each night. They tended to put teams away well before the fourth quarter, prompting Head Coach Steve Kerr to rest Curry during the final stretch of play for an amazing 17 times during the regular season. Although Harden is right they finished second last year, absolutely no one thought the Rockets were better than the Spurs and Clippers going into the playoffs.
Since all signs point to the Houston Rockets being even better this year—Dwight Howard seems to have put last year’s crippling knee injury behind him; the acquisition of assist-machine Ty Lawson will take pressure off Harden, whose usage rate last year was astronomically high—Harden’s path to the MVP will become more attainable. If Harden puts up numbers similar to last year, if he continues to improve his infamously poor defensive play, and if the Rockets manage to look like one of the West’s best two or three teams, Harden will win MVP honors.
3. The Return of the King, Or the Emergence of the Brow?
This year’s MVP race won’t be a two-player ordeal. People shouldn’t count out LeBron James, whose MVP-winning-days are reportedly behind him, to raise this year’s trophy. While he won’t be absorbing the entirety of the offense as he did during last year’s Finals—where it seemed as though for much of the game he was playing one-on-team—injuries to Iman Shumpert and Kyrie Irving will force LeBron to be more offensively decisive than he hoped to be during the regular season.
The result will be increases in key statistical categories. This is welcome news for those of you rooting for LeBron to pick up his fifth MVP award, since the unfortunate truth is last year’s LeBron was inferior in nearly every statistical category to the LeBron of two years ago when he was in his final season with Miami.
If you don’t know the name Anthony Davis, it’s time to get acquainted with the player analysts see as the league’s MVP-in-waiting. His coronation is all but assured; the only thing left to worry about is whether it will be this year—Davis’ fourth year in the league—or next. If he can stay healthy, it’s a safe bet the Brow will be the runaway statistical force in the league for the next ten years.
4. The Oklahoma City Thunder
Have I forgotten about Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook? After a season in which the Thunder failed to make the playoffs, largely due to Durant’s nagging injury that kept him out for the majority of the year, some have concluded that the Thunder’s title window is over. Not I. If they can manage to stay healthy, they’re my pick for best team in the West. Given what I said above about this year’s historically loaded West, that’s high praise.
Durant, who won MVP just two years ago, was “shut down” last year by the Thunder when it became clear they would not be able to mount a credible threat to the title. Although it’s true we don’t have an analytically useful history to draw upon when considering whether Durant’s injury will downgrade his game going forward, my impression, based on both the nature of the injury (it’s not knee-related) and the nature of Durant’s game (there exist not-so-difficult ways to get him his shot if his footwork is slightly impacted), is that Durant will see no appreciable drop-off in quality.
With Durant banged up, Russell Westbrook became the big bang. Earthly metaphors seem too tame for what Westbrook did last season. We need to go cosmic. Consider his insane haul of 11 triple-doubles last season—and these weren’t triple-doubles of the 10-10-10 variety. Though Westbrook lacks the steadying vision and offensive patience of traditional point-guard orchestrators—think Chris Paul and Magic Johnson—they don’t have his earth-shattering combination of strength and speed, which he ramps up to a maximum on both ends of the court.
Westbrook is, without exaggeration, the most explosive player I’ve ever seen; a cannonball made out of nanocrystalline diamond. Never in the history of sports advertising has there been a better conceptual match between endorser and product than Westbrook as the face of Mountain Dew’s Kickstart energy drink. The fit is so good we should retroactively declare Westbrook the true spokesperson for (and embodiment of) Surge, the proto-Red-Bulls energy soda from the ’90s.
The reason I don’t include Durant and Westbrook in the MVP discussion is simple: they cancel each other out. Durant won the MVP award two years ago when Westbrook wasn’t anywhere near his level. Now, for the first time, the perception is that they are true equals. Let’s see how they do.
5. Another Bad Year for Big-Market and Big-Name Teams
The Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics, and the New York Knicks will all continue to be bad this season. The Celtics have made the biggest improvement, and will probably make the playoffs in the Eastern wasteland, but there’s no threat of them living up to their pedigree of dominance. The Lakers and the Celtics are the NBA’s two most successful teams, and the Lakers and the Knicks are the NBA’s two most lucrative franchise-brands. But the three of them could fail to reach 100 wins combined, a number any two of the West’s top five teams will easily clear.
On the other hand, for the Lakers there might be an inverse relationship between quality of basketball and entertaining Kobe moments. If the team plays as badly as most of us think they will, we could be in store for some serious Kobe fireworks. He could lose it one game and decide to literally take every single shot; he could go scorched-earth in practice again; he could attempt to play a game with his championship rings on just to troll opponents (and teammates); he could explode for 93 to spite ESPN for ranking him that high in their annual NBA Countdown series. A more interesting question is: Will he really retire after what will likely be a horrible year of Lakers basketball?
6. The Spurs Continue to Recreate Themselves
We have been expecting the San Antonio Spurs to start the rebuilding process for years now. We should’ve realized that the Spurs don’t rebuild, they reconfigure; and it doesn’t involve, as it does for every other team, a period of losing to emerge at the top again. The Spurs simply recreate themselves, while still on their perch, so there’s no drop-off in quality in the interim. They just do away with the whole losing thing.
They have been the most dominant team for the past 15 years, a fact that’s easy to miss given their approach to dynasty is less of the repeat or three-peat kind, but closer to a superiority achieved in short clusters, the aggregate of which results in a longstanding brilliance. The latest iteration involves bringing in Portland’s superstar LaMarcus Aldridge and the aging-but-still-effective David West to challenge the Warriors for control of the West. With Kawhi Leonard fresh off a season in which he won Defensive Player of the Year, the future is bright in San Antonio.
7. The Sacramento Kings Will Be the Best Reality TV of the Season
The Kings as an organization are everything the Spurs are not. Everything they do is confusing, from inexplicably firing a coach who against all odds got along well with temperamental superstar DeMarcus Cousins early last season, to bringing in ticking time-bomb Rajon Rondo to run the offense (here’s what George Karl can look forward to) on a $10 million deal when presumably Rondo had no other offers on the table from other teams, to many other decisions (including hiring a coach in George Karl who is so ill-suited to partner up with Cousins that the Kings literally couldn’t have done worse).
But it’s not just management. Even the players themselves behave perplexingly. Consider the cryptic, theologically-loaded question DeMarcus Cousins offered journalists who reasonably just wanted to ask him about the game-winner he had just hit.
“I just got a question for y’all. How are you gonna stop God’s plan? How are you gonna do that? How are you gonna do that, that’s what I want to know, how are you gonna stop God’s plan?”
God’s plan can indeed feel elusive, but God’s got nothing on the Kings, whose plans often flat-out defy all rational explanation. One thing we can be sure of is that DeMarcus Cousins will put up better numbers than all but a handful of players. Unfortunately, in the loaded West, it will not be enough to make a serious playoff push.
8. The Return of Paul George
The Indiana Pacers superstar suffered an absolutely gruesome, year-ending injury prior to the start of last season (I can’t watch that video without getting queasy). He recovered in time to log some minutes in April, but the Pacers soon shut him down for good in anticipation of getting him ready for next season. Well, here we are, and it’s looking like George is fully healthy and chomping at the bit to start the year.
I mentioned above that power-forward David West signed for San Antonio. A curious development with the Pacers has been them trying to have George fill that hole at the four spot. The results from preseason…have not been good. It’s not that George has played poorly—actually, he’s played quite well and is on track to be an All-NBA selection this year—but that he’s played poorly at the power forward position, which is something he’s personally worrying about, as well.
One thing’s for sure: George and new acquisition Monta Ellis will be handling much of the Pacers’ scoring responsibilities. The Pacers won’t challenge for a title, but they’ll be more interesting offensively than they’ve been in years, and that’s in large part due to George’s return.
9. The Warriors-Clippers Rivalry
Rivalries are one of the most entertaining aspects of the game. As a young fan, I remember seeing the Knick’s coach, Jeff Van Gundy, who looked as though he was the team accountant, holding onto Miami center Alonzo Mourning’s leg for dear life in an ill-conceived effort to stop a fight between the Knicks and the Heat. There was some real bad blood between my team and those perennial losers from New York. Since the Knicks haven’t been good in a while, the rivalry has died down.
Michael Jordan’s emergence as an NBA champion occurred against a backdrop of Detroit Piston dominance. To get a chance to play for a title, Jordan had to beat the most physical team I’d ever seen. He eventually did so, but hoo-boy did the Pistons put a hurt on him in the process (see: the Jordan rules).
Our rivalry du jour involves the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Clippers. These teams pretty clearly hate each other. This matchup is delivering the rivalry goods: we’ve got live-interview shoulder bumps and subsequent staredowns, a coach chirping at an opposing player, the player responding by calling out the coach by his first name (then selling t-shirts off the exchange), defensive specialists getting embarrassed, and an offseason continuation of their mutual dislike.
With an important playoff seeding rule change taking effect this year, it’s likely the Warriors and Clippers will face off at some point in the postseason. But why wait? You should mark your calendars for the following regular-season meetings between the two: November 4, November 19, February 20, and March 23. The first of these is mere days away!
10. The Enigma That Is the Miami Heat
I want to end with my beloved Miami Heat. Last season, when Miami announced it had traded for Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic, the pieces seemed to be in place for a run at the Finals. Then it happened: Literally one hour later, the Heat announced Chris Bosh would miss the rest of the season due to blood clots in his lung. Needless to say, we never got a chance to see how good this team could be with all our top pieces together.
Bosh is now back. Longtime Miami star and hero Dwyane Wade is seemingly healthy. Veteran small forward Luol Deng has opted in to stay with the Heat. Hassan Whiteside, the diamond-in-the-rough revelation of last season, is hopefully ready to prove he’s elite. Justise Winslow, for many the steal of last year’s draft, will immediately contribute defensively and will grow behind Deng and Wade offensively. At any moment, Mario Chalmers can explode for 50 (not sure if we’re talking points or turnovers). Dragic, fresh off a lucrative new contract, will be looking to lead this team all the way.
Yet, with all this said, it is entirely unclear what we’re going to see from the Heat this year. Their range is gigantic: they could lead the East in wins or they could flirt with missing the playoffs. I’m obviously hoping for the former, but they’re the least decipherable of all the teams I’ve surveyed.
Whatever happens, I will be there to support them. Contrary to what some think, I do not advocate bandwagonism. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t prefer it when they’re firing on all cylinders. All together now: Let’s Go Heat! Let’s Go Heat!
Even though you probably didn’t join in for that chorus just now, I think we can all get excited about the new NBA season. I, for one, can’t wait.