As we prepare to launch the 2015-16 season, seven teams are contenders with a legitimate chance of winning the title, which is more than in most years. Five of those are in the West and the other two in the East.
Each of them has one burning question that will determine their fate. They are ranked here, bottom to top, in order of their chances of winning.
7. Can Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose Work Together?
Last season Jimmy Butler’s emergence was the big story in Chicago as Derrick Rose’s second return from knee injury was marred by inconsistent play and numerous injuries. While Rose had flashes of his MVP form, he often just fired up threes and seemed reluctant to go to the hole.
In the Bulls’ final playoff game—a routing at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers—rumors percolated of discontent between the Bulls’ starting backcourt-mates. Those rumors both men have repeatedly denied throughout the offseason.
Regardless of what the off-court relationship is like, the Bulls’ ultimate peak can only be reached if their two best players develop a true on-court chemistry. The two stars’ games fit nicely together and should work in new coach Fred Hoiberg’s offense. If it does, the Bulls will be a legitimate contender.
6. Will the Los Angeles Clippers Bench Be Effective?
Last season the Los Angeles Clippers’ starting five was the second-best in the league, as they outscored their counterparts by 7.5 points per game, according to NBA.com. However, they were ultimately doomed by the lack of support from their bench, who were outworked by -0.9 points a game.
That middling performance was enough to motivate the Clippers to make a number of offseason deals that brought on a whole new bench, going back to the last trade deadline. They’ve brought in Austin Rivers, Lance Stephenson, Paul Pierce and Josh Smith.
The early reports were all rave reviews about how the Clippers were suddenly the “deepest team in the league.” But recognizable names aren’t always the best players and the new group is a fairly odd collection of inefficient volume scorers.
Over the preseason, they were heavily outdone—to the tune of 6.9 points per game. As a group, they shot just 39.9 percent from the field and 31.0 percent from three. That sort of “production” is a long way from being the deep talent Clippers fans were anticipating. If they can’t get their second unit to work together, the Clippers’ title hopes aren’t going to be fulfilled.
5. Will the Houston Rockets Ever Get Healthy?
The Houston Rockets 2014-15 season was a remarkable success, all things considered. With a litany of injuries threatening to sabotage their season, the Rockets, mostly on the back of James Harden, kept thriving.
Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones, Patrick Beverley, Donatas Motiejunas, Harden and Trevor Ariza were the six best players they started the season with. They were all healthy and available for exactly two—count ‘em, two games last year. And those were the first two contests.
When the Rockets tip off their season this year, Harden, Howard, the newly acquired Ty Lawson, Motiejunas and Jones are all battling various ailments. They can’t endure another season like last one’s and survive as well.
4. Is Kevin Durant Back for Good?
If you look at the free agency speculation for next summer, the No. 1 player on any list is Kevin Durant. He’s viewed actually to be in play, but to be fair to him, he’s given no such indication that he’s even thought about leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder. And before we determine if he’s gone, let’s just hope he’s back.
The 2013-14 MVP endured three surgeries to his foot last year, and, as a result, he missed the bulk of last season. Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report discussed Durant’s injury and procedure with Robert Klapper, a Los Angeles Orthopedic surgeon (not Durant’s) who said:
There is no reason why Kevin Durant should not be like the Lopez twins (Brook and Robin), Pau Gasol, Michael Jordan and many other folks who’ve had metatarsal fractures and gone back and played and never had a problem again,” Klapper said. “The data supports that he should come back stronger and should never have a problem with this again.
Once can only hope, especially Thunder fans who want to see a title brought home.
3. Can the Golden State Warriors Stay “Lucky?”
The Golden State Warriors can get as chippy as they want about other teams suggesting that they were a bit lucky last year. But let’s face a couple of realities here:
- First, lucky and good aren’t mutually exclusive; you can be—and need to be—both to win a title.
- Second, the Warriors were both last year. And really the Spurs before that and the Heat before that and so on down the line.
The Warriors were able to avoid almost any important injuries last season, and ironically the most severe one made it easier for them to make a decision that may have helped to win the title.
David Lee, who was making 10 times what Draymond Green was, was injured at the start of the season, and Green stepped into his place and as a stretch 4 who can defend the pants off anyone became the cog that made the Warriors’ defense work.
Whether they got “lucky” in who they faced was a lot of speculative nonsense, and frankly, the way they were playing, no one was beating them anyway, healthy or not. They were the best team in the league. But they were also the second-least affected by injury according to Man Games Lost. And that’s got a bit of luck factor involved.
2. Will LeBron James Break Down?
LeBron James is a cyborg. He doesn’t go to the team physician; he goes to the team mechanic. He doesn’t get a blood transfusion; he gets an oil change. He is a machine, and apparently an unbreakable one. Or so it seems.
Since he came into the league in 2004, he’s played a lot of minutes. To be exact, counting the regular and postseason, he’s logged 43,331 of them. That’s almost 6,000 more than anyone else in the league. Joe Johnson is second with 37,541. Only Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Kobe Bryant, Tayshaun Prince, Dwyane Wade and Tony Parker are within 10,000 of him.
Figuring that an average starter is logging around 2,500 minutes per season, that’s an extra four years of basketball. And, over that time, he’s maintained a colossal usage of 31.7 percent in his career.
Point being, even cyborgs have their limits, and it may be getting to the time where James reaches his. The toll of carrying teams on his back for over a decade may be catching up with him. He had to take two weeks off to let it recover last year.
But now he has another deep postseason run and the heaviest-toll one to endure yet. And Kyrie Irving, his second-best playmaker, and Iman Shumpert, his second-best wing defender, are both out for the start of the season. So he’ll have no relief at the start of this season.
Will the cyborg break down? If he does, Cleveland suddenly becomes very beatable.
1. Will LaMarcus Aldridge Gel in San Antonio?
The San Antonio Spurs signed LaMarcus Aldridge, and it’s surprising been met with a bit of skepticism. There are questions about whether the Spurs have lost as much on defense as they gained on offense because they had to trade Tiago Splitter to make space for the All-Star power forward.
And this is the part where you should stop yourself and think: Are we really trying to suggest that Splitter is better for the Spurs than Aldridge? In your best Stephen A voice, now, “Teee-ah-go SPLITTER?!”
Aldridge is a superstar in any other market. But wiling away in Portland, he didn’t get the same kind of fanfare. The Spurs were arguably a top-four team in the league last year. They were the defending NBA champions, and they lost in one of the great opening-round series of all time.
Let’s not pretend that adding one of the two or three best power forwards in the game to them doesn’t help them even more. If Aldridge can become the offensive leader of this team and gel in that offense—and he has all the tools to do so—then the Spurs become the favorites to win it all.
If this works, the Spurs are the best team in basketball. And if it works, they’re the next NBA Champions.