The 2014-2015 NBA season is about to begin, and the title contenders are easy to spot: The defending champions, the San Antonio Spurs will duke it out in the West with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers, while the Eastern conference will be decided once the dust settles from the skirmishes between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls.
The Defending Champions
This is basically the same team that ended up beating the Miami Heat in five games in June, winning the fifth title for the franchise. The San Antonio Spurs added only Kyle Anderson, the intriguing rookie out of UCLA, while keeping all of the key players, role players and far left bench players on the roster. This means another season of managing minutes so Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are rested when it’s time for the playoffs. Another season in which Kawhi Leonard takes more steps towards becoming a star, although an injury is hurting that chance. Another season of Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter stepping up when necessary, while guys like Jeff Ayres and Aron Baynes wait for their chance. At some point the Spurs are going to stop being this good, but just like Aragorn says at the Black Gate, it’s probably not this day.
Threat From the East
Two teams seem like likely champions from the Eastern conference – The Cleveland Cavaliers, obvious favorites despite what LeBron James says, and the Chicago Bulls. The rest? The Washington Wizards, Charlotte Bobcats and Miami Heat are good teams, playoff teams that all can see themselves as at least Conference semifinalists when the time comes. Obviously, one of them is going to be left out, and from the way things seem to be right now, it’s hard imagining them getting one over the Bulls and especially the Cavs.
So why the Cavs? Isn’t it obvious? Some explanations are beyond the realms of talking about offensive and defensive schemes. Sometimes it’s about talent and how it clicks. LeBron James chose to come back to Cleveland, and immediatly turned them into title contenders. Not just because he is joining forces with Kyrie Irving, but also because he convinced Kevin Love to come along for the ride. They gave up on two number one picks (Wiggins, Bennett) but have Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thopmson and Dion Waiters already on the team. Shawn Marion and Mike Miller joined in as well. This team is pretty deep despite having three All-Stars. It’s up to David Blatt to make it work.
And why the Bulls? Assuming Derrick Rose is going to be not just healthy but at an All-Star level again, this team’s offense should rise back to the levels it was during the 2011-2012 NBA season; when Rose was on the floor that year (missed almost half the season with various injuries), the Bulls had the best offensive efficiency in the league. The frontcourt is loaded after Pau Gasol joined in, Jimmy Butler looks like he’s about to break out with no injury getting in the way and they have a lot more range and ability to spread the floor with Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott in their rookie seasons. If the defense stays the same, maybe James has a point about the Bulls being the best team right now.
Trailing in the West
In order to make the playoffs last season, the Dallas Mavericks needed 49 wins, making it out of 8th place and taking the Spurs to seven games in the first round of the playoffs. The Suns with 48 wins (enough for 4th in the East) and the Minnesota Timberwolves with 40 wins (enough for 8th in the East) missed out. It’s that deep, and it’s that difficult getting out of there into the final eight and start making a run for the title.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have made the conference finals in 2011, 2012 and 2014, and were one Russell Westbrook injury away from making it four years in a row. Still, there’s a sense of underachieving, mostly tied to Scott Brooks usually being the focus of criticism about having no sense on how to coach an offense. Russell Westbrook also takes his fair share of poison arrows for not playing like a point guard. Kevin Durant will miss the beginning of the season, but that shouldn’t stop the Thunder from once again being near the top of the conference. What is crucial for them is home court advantage, putting a lot of pressure on Westbrook and Ibaka early on to keep the ship afloat.
The Los Angeles Clippers aren’t that different from last year. They still hinge on the wonders of Chris Paul and the continued evolution and growth of Blake Griffin. Spencer Hawes might become a huge help off the bench, keeping the tradition of having a deep roster over the last few years alive and also helping them stretch the floor, something that’s very hard to do with DeAndre Jordan, another player who is expected to add a bit more to his limited game. If it wasn’t for some terrible officiating in game five of the conference semifinals, the Clippers might have reached a new high during Rivers’ first season as coach. That’s where they’re aiming this season.
And the rest of the bunch: The Golden State Warriors aren’t that different from last season, but they’re counting on Steve Kerr as their new head coach to bring sophistication Mark Jackson failed to add from the sidelines, on Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson carrying on with their development and showing they’re the best backcourt in the NBA and not just streaky shooters and overall for the chemistry and familiarity to be an advantage. The Dallas Mavericks made moves to make them good, but not enough, as Ellis and Nowitzki remain the offensive focal point while getting Tyson Chandler back, making Nowitzki feel a bit more like the 2011 championship team with Chandler Parsons coming to help out. The Portland Trail Blazers were the refreshing surprise of the season, at least early on last year. With a better bench, Lillard, Aldridge, Batum, Lopez and Matthews should be able to avoid fatigue in the middle of the year and reach the playoffs in a better situation.