By Adam Lindner | Staff Writer
With the 2016 NBA season set to commence this week, the eyes of many will be transfixed on Kevin Durant’s highly anticipated debut as a Warrior. While this is possibly the most captivating move in the history of NBA free agency, this offseason was littered with many other marquee names relocating as well.
The same night that Durant debuted, Derrick Rose played his first game as a New York Knick. Other household names who have changed their addresses include new Boston Celtic Al Horford, Dwight Howard – who returns to his hometown to take Horford’s old spot in the Atlanta frontcourt, and Dwyane Wade, who shockingly left Miami after a contractual dispute for his hometown of Chicago.
While many teams improved through free agency, the reigning champs in Cleveland remained predominantly the same. Other than the minor additions and departures of a few role players, the team remains mostly intact.
The hopes of many Cavaliers fans hinge on the fact that all of the key players from last year’s title run remain. While Golden State will have a new look as their starting lineup is even more potent than last year’s, yet their bench has been downgraded considerably in order to acquire Durant. Realistically, it is wishful thinking to believe that Golden State will struggle much at all to become a cohesive unit. But the mercurial Draymond Green has proven capable of disrupting team chemistry in the past.
While Cleveland and Golden State are both consensus favorites to repeat once more as champions of their respective conferences, the league’s 28 other squads also made some intriguing moves this offseason.
Heading into 2016, the Eastern Conference looks stronger than it has in a while. In recent years, the East has been very top-heavy. Just as late as 2015, the Brooklyn Nets took advantage of such a weak bottom-half of the conference and made the playoffs as an 8-seed with an underwhelming 38-44 record. However, many teams around the East have improved tremendously in hopes of toppling the Cavaliers this coming season.
The Boston Celtics, in the eyes of many, possess much forward momentum with a young nucleus containing point guard Isaiah Thomas, small forward Jae Crowder, and shooting guard Avery Bradley. Over the past few months, Boston signed star center Al Horford and drafted well. Of their six draft picks — yes, six — Jaylen Brown out of California stands out as one who should be able to contribute right away. With a young and talented core and one of the most promising coaches in the league in Brad Stevens, one has to like Boston’s chances of improving upon their solid 48-34 mark from a season ago.
Another team in the Atlantic Division looking to dethrone Cleveland can be found north of the border in Toronto. After making the Eastern Conference Finals last season, the Raptors will be looking to do more of the same this year. A major relief to Raptors fans everywhere came early in free agency when superstar guard DeMar DeRozan resigned with the franchise. With many returning players and a healthy Demarre Carroll, look for Toronto to contend in the East as well.
Recently cleared of rape allegations, Derrick Rose should be able to focus solely on staying healthy and helping his new-look Knicks back to the playoffs. Seeing how New York and Chicago adapt to having such a new identity will be one of the most alluring storylines in the NBA this season.
While New York’s chief concern is health, Chicago’s is more so how the stars that they’ve aligned will actually play together. Newly-acquired Rajon Rondo is a horrendous shooter from long range, and Dwyane Wade isn’t exactly a sniper from downtown, either. Coach Fred Hoiberg has quite the task in attempting to space the floor with a backcourt full of such ball-dominant guards.
While the East as a whole has improved, the Western Conference has slowly declined over the past few years. The recent past has seen copiously talented teams battling for a lower-level playoff spot. But everything that goes up must come down, and the West is currently experiencing a major changing of the guard. Gone are to-be Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan, and many teams relevant just a few years ago have been weakened substantially due to aging stars or key contributors fleeing town.
Correspondingly, teams who have struggled mightily over the past decade are now relishing in much more optimistic days. (Portland, Utah, Minnesota, and even the new-look Lakers have much to look forward to in the years to come.)
While it will require divine intervention for Golden State to not finish first in the West, many other squads have much to be excited about, too.
For years, analysts and fans alike have counted out San Antonio, claiming that the Spurs are simply “too old.” However, just as recently as 2014, the Spurs ended LeBron’s campaign in South Beach by besting him and the Heat in the Finals. Why should this year be any different? Sure, it’ll never be the same without Tim Duncan, but San Antonio brings in Pau Gasol to replace him.
While the Los Angeles Clippers have been one of the most consistent regular season teams the past few years since the trio of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan was assembled, they have yet to make it past the semifinals. With Chris Paul embarking on the descent of his career, the Clippers are surely feeling pressure to finally capitalize on their chance to win with a world-class point guard orchestrating their offense.
It goes without saying that Kevin Durant’s departure hurts the championship prospects of Oklahoma City. However, a healthy Russell Westbrook should make the OKC brass extremely hopeful. In stints where Durant was injured, Westbrook has showcased MVP-caliber play. The rest of the league should fear what Westbrook will be able to accomplish now with an entire season at the helm of the Thunder.
Another under-the-radar team in the West to watch out for is the Trail Blazers. The best budding backcourt in basketball resides in Portland in the youthful Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. With a win over the Clippers in last year’s playoffs under their belt, Portland may be ready to take another step forward toward becoming a perennial contender in the West.
With the beginning of a new NBA season this week, excitement oozes from just about every region. While there’s certainly much to look forward to, it’s highly likely that Cleveland and Golden State will go on to meet again for a third consecutive year in the Finals this June.
The Cavaliers pulled off the unthinkable last spring by coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Warriors, and they’ll have to hope they have some magic left over from last year’s run for this campaign, too. Even as LeBron James and Co. remain world-class, the fact that Kevin Durant will join such an already terrifically successful lineup in Oakland seriously changes the dynamic between these two teams.
This is Golden State’s title to lose.
2016-17 NBA Finals Prediction: Golden State 4, Cleveland 3