The new NBA season is upon us, and the it begins with similar questions from past seasons still awaiting answers. First and foremost, this concerns whether anyone can challenge the league’s seemingly immovable objects; in the Western Conference, the 2017 champions, the Golden State Warriors and in the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers, or more to the point, LeBron James.
The two conferences have taken two totally different approaches to this challenge. In the West, facing the harder challenge of dislodging the ‘Superteam’ of Golden State, a number of teams have devoted their energies to building similarly strong squads in an effort to fight for a championship now. Meanwhile, in the East, the challenge of defeating a much more beatable Cavs team, a sizeable proportion of the conference have opted to begin the process of rebuilding (i.e. trading away top players to gain favourable draft picks in future) or retain the rosters that have struggled to beat Cleveland for the last few campaigns.
So, to those teams mounting a challenge to the Warriors’ dominance in the West. First among the suitors to Golden State’s crown will surely be the Houston Rockets. A promising first season under coach Mike D’Antoni saw the Rockets develop an exciting brand of basketball around James Harden’s offensive talents that took the team to a 3rd place finish and the Conference Semi-finals. However, their Achilles’ heel of defensive frailty (Their defensive rating was way down at 18th best in the league) proved to be an obstacle to a true title push.
Therefore, the addition of Chris Paul, named to the All-Defensive Team nine times in his career, as well as the likes of Luc Mbah a Moute and PJ Tucker should help to shore up the Rockets and provide the platform for a great season. Those credentials will be tested on opening night, when they travel to the Golden State Warriors (3:30am on Tuesday Night/Wednesday Morning for the sleep deprived amongst you).
However, they won’t be the only side in the West with the potential to have a great campaign. At Oklahoma City Thunder, the addition of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony – with fourteen All-Star Game appearances and four Olympic Gold Medals between them – will give Russell Westbrook, the best player in the league last season, a reduced workload and supply the multiple scoring options they desperately need to succeed. A damning statistic from last year’s play-off series with Houston was that with Westbrook on the floor, the Thunder led by fifteen points, whilst without him they trailed by fifty-eight.
Coping without Westbrook was OKC’s great vulnerability, but in George and Anthony they now have the personnel to overcome that problem. However, the most radical roster renovation has been at the Minnesota Timberwolves. The additions of Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford amongst others bring some exciting talents with play-off experience to the side. This could work to devastating effect alongside Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, both first overall picks in the 2014 and 2015 Drafts respectively. However, having been predicted to make great progress over the last few years and falling short, it remains to be seen if Minnesota can live up to their potential this time.
Meanwhile, it would be absurd to have any discussion of the Western Conference challengers without mentioning the San Antonio Spurs. Having made the post-season every year since 1997 under legendary coach Gregg Popovich, the Spurs are almost certain to be at the sharp end of the Western Conference again this year. Although, what they have gained in the development of a bona fide superstar in Kawhi Leonard, may have come at the cost of the identity that won them four championships, namely a team of equals all capable of making decisive plays.
Elsewhere in the conference, the continued development of the Denver Nuggets will be fascinating to watch, as will the arrival of the Lonzo Ball hype train into the Los Angeles Lakers, and with it the bizarre antics of his publicity-seeking father, LaVar. Having said all of this, the Golden State Warriors still have to be overwhelming favourites to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. Having retained the vast majority of the roster that enjoyed a demolition tour of the Play-offs last year, including former MVPs Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, as well as defensive powerhouses Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, it’s hard to see anyone having the ability to overwhelm the Dubs and beat them to the title. Their only worries are Kevin Durant’s peculiar Twitter activity and annoying President Trump (although for me and most of the NBA, that’s hardly a bad thing).
In the East, the mood is much more defeatist.
A number of the stars that have helped to make a number of Western Conference teams championship contenders, including Jimmy Butler, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George, have left Eastern Conference teams to do so, in this case the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers respectively. That leaves the Cleveland Cavaliers’ path to another NBA Finals clearer than it was last year, even after the departure of Kyrie Irving, their star point guard, such is LeBron James’ hegemony over the Eastern Conference.
Their roster for the new season is at least intriguing, with a motley crew of players with great talent, but who have perhaps gone past their peak, like James’ friend and former Miami Heat team mate Dwayne Wade, 2011 MVP Derrick Rose and the vastly experienced Jose Calderon. Their biggest threat will come from the Boston Celtics, whose roster has seen a dramatic change from last year. Kyrie Irving arrives from the Cavaliers, albeit at the cost of cult hero Isaiah Thomas going the other way following a serious hip injury that will keep him out until at least January. In combination with Gordon Hayward, one of the few players to move from West to East after leaving the Utah Jazz, the Celtics certainly have the talent to take the fight to Cleveland. Irving faces what is likely to be an awkward reunion with his former teammates on opening night, when Boston welcome Cleveland, at the slightly less painful hour of 1am UK time.
Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, it’s been a summer of continuity for the other potential challengers. The Washington Wizards have a thrilling back-court partnership of John Wall and Bradley Beal, but their real lack of depth remains a substantial stumbling block to advancing any further than last year’s fourth placed finish. At the Toronto Raptors, it’s a similar story with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan running the show from Guard, but unless they can get rid of their play-off struggles, a significant championship challenge will be difficult. How the young rosters at the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers progress looks set to be one of the most compelling parts of the season, but staying injury free is likely to be the biggest challenge for both teams, having been ravaged by them in recent years.
In short, don’t expect anything but a Warriors championship, but do expect them to have to put up a real fight to win it.