By Joseph Sykes and Andrew Holman
With the 2015-16 NBA season already underway, The Duke’s sports staff takes a look at which teams can make a run to the Finals.
The NBA’s Western Conference is now on a roll. Two back-to-back league titles have proven that its team-based style of play trumps the East’s star-driven approach to winning games. Heading into the 2015-16 season, this storyline will continue to hold true when a number of powerhouse squads get set to battle for a shot to play in the NBA Finals.
The team many are picking to overthrow the Golden State Warriors – last year’s conference champ – to represent the West this time around is the Oklahoma City Thunder, a club that didn’t make the postseason last year.
Unfortunately for the Thunder, injuries to superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook hindered them from missing last postseason after reaching the Western Finals just a year earlier. Of course, having two of the league’s most elite scorers on the sidelines never helps. If Durant and Westbrook can stay healthy, and if depth players like Serge Ibaka and Dion Waiters contribute offensively, the Thunder are primed for a playoff trek.
With odds of 5-1, Las Vegas has the Thunder ranked third on its list of teams expected to win the NBA Championship next April. Ranked first is LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and second, the Warriors – a team very familiar with long playoff runs.
Fresh off their championship season, the Warriors possess nearly an identical roster to the championship team that conquered the Cavs last June. Sharpshooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are leading the way once again on offense for Dub-Nation while second-year coach Steve Kerr perfects their run-and-gun offense. With Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green handling the dirty work in the backcourt, this team is ready to take on the Thunder and the rest of the Western Conferences’ elite.
While the Thunder and Warriors are two of the top-three favorites to make it to the big dance, there are two squads from the Lone Star State ready to give them trouble.
The Houston Rockets boast a fantastic pool of young talent including guys like Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker who are expected to give James Harden and Dwight Howard a breather throughout close games.
Vegas has the Rockets at 20-1 odds to win it all this year. That’s underwhelming, but still very good. Because they are still coming together as a team and haven’t developed a level of chemistry yet, they are not the real deal. Just 200 miles away, though, there’s another Texas team craving a shot at its sixth NBA title.
The Spurs are statistically the oldest team in the NBA with an average age of 30.8 years. Tim Duncan (38), Manu Ginóbili (38) and Tony Parker (33) may be in the dog days of their career, but that won’t stop them from proving they still have the skills to win another championship. Just two years ago, this core led the Spurs to their fifth championship in 17 years. Add LaMarcus Aldridge to the equation, a player who has averaged just a hair under 20 points-per-game in his career, and there’s once again a championship-caliber team dwelling in the shadows of the Alamo.
There’s a lot of talent in the Western Conference, including a few other squads like the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and the New Orleans Pelicans. Many believe the Cavs, led by James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will be the favorites to win it all, if they can stay healthy. Still, the Cavaliers have a tough opponent in each of these.
It’ll be a gritty battle to the end, but expect a Thunder-Warriors Western Conference Finals matchup with the winner taking on either the Cavs or Chicago Bulls in the NBA Finals.
-Joseph Sykes | Sports Editor
The NBA’s underwhelming Eastern Conference is the Cleveland Cavaliers’ to lose, even with a full season to play. Arguments can be made for the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks and the Washington Wizards, but it’s the Cavs that have solidified their spot far ahead of the pack.
If the Cavaliers can stay healthy throughout May and June, they will be the ones popping champagne and hoisting the Eastern Conference Finals trophy on their way back to the NBA Finals for the second year in a row.
Cleveland’s roster is very similar to last year’s Eastern Conference Championship team, but the key additions of Mo Williams and Richard Jefferson might be a lot more important than people realize. These guys bring back the veteran presence that left with the departures of Shawn Marion, Mike Miller, Kendrick Perkins and Brendan Haywood.
The Cavaliers were relatively new last year so the early struggles from a season ago should be erased this time around now that these guys are used to playing together. A team composed of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will have championship expectations every season.
The Bulls are the most likely candidates to unseat the Cavaliers as Eastern Conference Champs, and that is because of their remarkable depth. Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, when healthy, are two of the game’s brightest stars, and Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic are two of the game’s most underrated players. Then they have guys like Aaron Brooks and Joakim Noah coming off the bench. Rookie head coach Fred Hoiberg proved his coaching prestige at Iowa State and he has the talent on this roster to contend, but it still seems like a stretch to put them over the Cavs.
Many people may be wondering whether the team that faced off against the Cavs in the ECF last season, the Atlanta Hawks, will be a threat once again. The answer is yes, but only in the regular season. The Hawks are a solid team; however, they simply do not have the talent to compete with the Cavs come postseason. They may take the Eastern Conference’s top seed going into the playoffs, but it’s safe to say they won’t be the ones representing the conference.
The Wizards are a young up and coming team that seemingly keeps getting better year after year. The young trifecta of John Wall (25), Bradley Beal (22) and Otto Porter (22) will give the Wizards a chance to contend, but the absence of their veteran leader Paul Pierce and their lack of bench production will be too much to overcome.
As for the Heat, they are pretty much the opposite of those Wizards. The Heat are relying on veterans such as Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire and Luol Deng. The play of Goran Dragic is what will really determine how successful the Heat can be.
The Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks are two teams very capable of making some noise and surprising some people this year. The Celtics lack stars, but they have a very talented young core with Marcus Smart leading the way. As for the Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Michael Carter Williams and Jabari Parker give Milwaukee a promising future. However, the Bucks are another team with a lack of depth and even this young trio needs more time to develop.
The Cavaliers are going to be extremely tough to beat so expect them to cruise past the Chicago Bulls en route to a trip back to the Finals.
-Andrew Holman | The Duquesne Duke