It seems like an eternity ago that Steve Kerr’s thrilling Golden State team cruised to the Finals before easily dismantling an injury hit Cleveland side. We have all had the summer to reflect on what was another intriguing season, and now it is time to turn our attention to the upcoming season which tips off on the 27th of October. The preseason is currently underway and we are getting glimpses into what we can expect this campaign, and there are plenty of teams, coaches and individual players who have a point to prove in the 2015-16 season.
10. Rookie Watch
As always, there are plenty of fresh faces in the league this season, which will hopefully add plenty of excitement and improve a number of the struggling teams. The Timberwolves picked up 7’0″ center Karl-Anthony Towns, who has impressed in the preseason and will benefit from the guidance of veteran Kevin Garnett this year. The Lakers picked up D’Angelo Russell, who possesses excellent vision and passing ability, potentially making him a huge asset for the team. The third pick, Jahlil Okafor, will also be one to watch at the 76ers; it will be refreshing to see an old school back-to-the-basket player like him enter the league. Elsewhere, Detroit’s Stanley Johnson (eighth pick) has been dazzling in preseason and will be full of confidence come the start of the regular season. Orlando’s Mario Hezonja (fifth pick) is the flashiest and cockiest of the bunch, and should provide plenty of highlights.
9. Orlando Magic
As mentioned, the Orlando Magic picked up 6’8″ Croatian Mario Hezonja, who is already known to be full of self-confidence and a very exciting young player. He joins an already promising young core of Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon, and this could make the Magic one of the most fun teams to watch this season (check out this recent highlight from the preseason). They have one of the best Bigs in the East in Nikola Vucevic, and the appointment of head coach Scott Skiles should see the Magic improve as they continue to rebuild. This is still very much a project for the future, but things are looking bright and there is now a positivity around Orlando which has been missing for many years. There will be mistakes and growing pains along the way, but these new players should provide plenty of entertainment this season.
8. Paul George and “Small-Ball” Pacers
It will be fantastic to see Paul George back after suffering that horrendous leg break only 15 months ago, as prior to this he was an elite player and key in pushing the Pacers to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances. Sadly, the injury marked a spectacular decline for the Pacers, and now Larry Bird has decided to change things up. This has seen them lose Big Men including Roy Hibbert, David West and Luis Scola, and bring in Monta Ellis, Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger. They are switching to “small-ball,” and this will see the 6’9″ George go from the wings to the PF position. Going small worked for the Warriors, but apparently George is not thrilled about his changed role. It will be up to Bird and head coach Frank Vogel to convince him, and the best way to do this will be to start the season strongly.
7. Fred Hoiberg’s Chicago Bulls
John Paxson has decided to take the Bulls in a new direction and away from the hard-nosed defensive stylings of Tom Thibodeau, and he believes that former Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg is the man for the job. It will be fascinating to see how the Bulls fare under Hoiberg, who is promising but has zero experience as an NBA coach (although he spent four years in the Timberwolves’ front office and 10 years as a player). It is expected that their offense will be sped up, which will be a welcome change as the Bulls took too many shots at the end of the shotclock last season. This should benefit Rose, Dunleavy, the impressive Mirotic and the ever-improving Jimmy Butler. A promising rookie coach given the keys to a talented and unselfish group with great chemistry could be a winning combination, but of course adjustments and compromises can create issues.
6. Kobe Bryant’s Farewell Tour?
It is hard to remember a time when Kobe Bryant was the unstoppable force that he was for so many years, and it has been painful to see him battle against his body and finish each of the last three seasons prematurely. Now entering his 20th campaign, it is likely that this season will be his farewell tour, but equally we all know just how driven and determined the 37-year-old is, and both Derek Fisher and Phil Jackson expect him to keep on playing. Whatever his decision, you can fully expect Kobe to come out with a point to prove this season, but this may not be in the Lakers’ best interest. They have a promising young core of Russell, Clarkson and Randle, and have added size and defensive steel with Roy Hibbert and Brandon Bass. It will be intriguing to see what unfolds in Tinseltown this season.
5. The Continuing Development of Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis has developed at an astonishing rate in his three years in the NBA, and this has seem him rapidly become one of the most dominant players in the league. The sky is the limit for the 6’10” PF/C with a 7’5″ wingspan, and last season he led the league in player efficiency rating with 30.89 whilst stuffing the stat-sheet each night. He flirted with all kinds of records and came close to registering an elusive quadruple double; it seems only a matter of time before he achieves this and joins the prestigious company of David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon. Davis has apparently been working on his three-point shot this summer, so he is certainly a player to watch this season. With Alvin Gentry (last season’s associate head coach of the Warriors) at the helm, the future looks very bright for the Pelicans and Davis.
4. The Return of Kevin Durant
No matter what your opinion is of the Thunder, one of the sad stories of last season was Kevin Durant’s injury-riddled campaign, which saw him play just 27 games. After numerous injuries, he was eventually ruled out for the season after opting for foot surgery. This was hugely disappointing coming off the back of his incredible MVP season in 2013-14. Now that he has been cleared to return, hopefully he can stay fit and get back to his unguardable self, as he is one of the most entertaining and likeable players in the league. It is not just his return that will be a topic of conversation this season, however, as he is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, which means there will be an enormous amount of speculation about where he’ll go (or stay). For now, it will be great to see the former MVP on the hardwood again.
3. LeBron’s Second Year Back in Cleveland
It was again a disappointing end to the campaign for LeBron, who, despite some mammoth performances in his fifth straight finals, could not overpower a well-balanced Warrior squad. He now enters his second year back in Cleveland, likely hoping that he does not have to once again shoulder the entire load. It will not start quite how he had hoped, however, as he will have to manage without Irving and Shumpart. And whilst Love may be ready, he is still recovering from his shoulder injury. There is also the Tristan Thompson saga, as contract negotiations have faltered and it is unclear where he will be playing when the season starts in a few weeks. It may be a bit of a mess now, but they will still be the team to beat in the East as LeBron aims for his sixth straight Finals appearance and third ring.
2. The Warriors’ Title Defense
The Golden State Warriors waltzed to a league best 67 wins last season before easily advancing to the Finals and comfortably brushing aside the Cavs. This gave them their first trophy in 40 years, all whilst playing an exciting and incredibly efficient brand of basketball. It was a fairytale season for rookie head coach Steve Kerr, but he knows that their title defense is unlikely to be a walk in the park. Only the Lakers and Heat have managed to repeat since the millennium, but he will be buoyed by how balanced his squad is and how they do not rely on one player (despite having the league MVP). A common issue that teams struggle with when defending a title is hunger, but it does not look like this will be a problem for the Warriors, with several of their players lashing out against critics of their title run.
1. The Bolstered San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich and his San Antonio Spurs will have a bitter taste in their mouth from last season, which saw their title defense come up very short by falling to the Clippers in the first round. Although the Spurs are now yet another year older, they are many people’s choice to reclaim the title after remarkably adding four-time All-Star LeMarcus Aldridge and tough veteran David West to their ranks. They managed this whilst also bringing back Duncan and Ginobli, plus they signed Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard to new deals. West declined his $12 million player option to sign a $1.5 million deal, showing that he is all about winning and knows that San Antonio is the place to do this. The Spurs are all in this season, and if they can gel, Duncan and co. could very well add another ring to their collection.