Monday, October 26, 2015

The Most Pressing Questions Heading into the NBA Season

The Most Pressing Questions Heading into the NBA Season
Sports fans: if Messi-less world football, Roger Goodell, and yet another Cubs-less World Series have you feeling a bit down, fear not — the NBA is back!
No sport conjures up better story lines year in and year out than those of The Association and, given last year’s playoffs — the defending champs going down in the first round, the Clippers implosion against the Rockets, LeBron almost single-handlely willing the Cavs to the Finals (with some unexpected help from Matthew Dellavedova), all of the fortuitous bounces that went Golden State’s way (KD’s broken foot and the Thunder missing the playoffs entirely, the Spurs’ early exit, Mike Conley’s broken face, the Clippers blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Rockets, Houston’s injuries), etc. — the 2015-16 campaign is shaping up to be another doozy. High profile coaching changes (Fred Hoiberg in for Tom Thibodeau in Chicago, Billy Donovan taking the reigns in OKC), returns from injury (Kobe, KD, Kyrie and Kevin Love especially), aging stars (Kobe and D Wade), the rise of a potential all-time great (Is Anthony Davis the best player in the league?), a solid draft class (D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor and the dunking machine that is “Super Mario” Hezonja) and the Splash Brothers’ quest for a repeat mean this is the year you have to shell out the dough for League Pass.
Below, we consider just a few of the most pressing questions — in no particular order — heading into the upcoming season.
The 2015-16 NBA slate tips off Tuesday, October 27 with a trio of match-ups: Detroit at Atlanta, Cleveland at Chicago and New Orleans at Golden State.

Is this the last chance for Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City?
Before breaking his foot, being rushed back to the court, and reaggravating the injury, Kevin Durant was arguably the best player in the NBA. Now KD is in the final year of his five-year, $89 million USD deal and, in his absence last season, Russell Westbrook became a masked, one-man wrecking crew as he mounted an MVP-caliber charge that almost dragged the Thunder into the playoffs. With Scott Brooks out and Billy Donovan at the helm, the Thunder will try to make what may be one final run at an NBA title before Durant packs his bags and the franchise truly becomes “The Dynasty That’s Never Been.”

Is this the end of the road for Kobe?
As Sports Illustrated puts it, “Three consecutive season-ending injuries have forced the Lakers to admit the truth: thirty-seven-year-old Kobe Bryant’s engine light is on, his brakes are squealing, and there’s smoke coming from the hood.”
It’s been tough sledding for the Black Mamba these past couple of years and things aren’t exactly looking up. Coming off a trio of injury-plagued campaigns, the aging star is in the final year of the two-year, $48.5 million USD contract extension he signed back in November of 2013 — a whopping albatross that’s made Bryant the highest-paid player in the league while simultaneously hampering the front office’s ability to improve the Lakers’ line-up. Coming back from last season’s torn rotator cuff, a battered Bryant will likely have to shoulder the load for a young and inexperienced squad that will essentially be fielding two rookies in its starting five — 2nd overall pick D’Angelo Russell and 2014 first-rounder Julius Randle, who broke his leg in the 2014-15 season opener and missed the remainder of the year. Worse yet, mentoring young talent hasn’t exactly been Bryant’s forte in the past.
If the Lakers end up being as bad as the experts expect — they may very well finish dead last in the Western Conference — or if Kobe suffers yet another injury-riddled campaign, Bryant could hang it up for good in 2016.

Can the Bulls return to glory?
You can make the case that the Bulls are an even better “The Dynasty That’s Never Been” candidate than Oklahoma City. Despite his Coach of the Year award and Derrick Rose’s MVP in 2010-2011, defensive mastermind Tom Thibodeau failed to lead the squad to the Finals in any of his five years in charge — thanks in large part to Rose’s seemingly endless string of injuries. Now Thibs is out, former Iowa State coach Fred “The Mayor” Hoiberg is in, Rose is hurt again — this time with an orbital fracture — and Jimmy Butler appears poised to be the face of the franchise. Chicago is a trendy pick to square off against the Cavs in the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals, but that largely hinges on Butler’s ascension and the health of both D Rose and Joakim Noah — the latter of whom may not even crack Hoiberg’s starting five.

Is Anthony Davis the best player in the NBA?
That designation probably still goes to LeBron (or maybe KD), but the former Kentucky Wildcat’s on-court gifts are undeniable. Entering just his fourth year in the league, the Pelicans center is coming off a season in which he improved in every single statistical category (three-point percentage aside) on his way to averaging a double-double while shooting nearly 54% from the field. Davis saved the best for last, averaging 31.5 points, 11 rebounds and 3 blocks per game against the eventual NBA champions — joining the esteemed company of Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone as the only players in the past two decades to put up those kind of numbers. The unibrowed one ultimately finished the year 4th, 5th, and 6th in the league’s voting for Defensive Player of the Year, MVP and Most Improved Player, respectively while being named All-NBA First Team — effectively making him one of the top five players in the league at just 22 years of age. And one more number for all the stat fiends out there: Davis had a player efficiency rating of 30.8 in 2014-15, thus become the youngest player to ever lead the league in PER.

Can the Clippers bounce back?
Blowing a 3-1 series lead against Houston in last year’s Western Conference Semifinals was seemingly the worst thing that could have happened to a team with a fragile psyche like the Clippers. Then DeAndre Jordan almost jumped ship to join the Mavericks. But, following an emoji war on Twitter, Jordan ultimately went back on his verbal agreement with Dallas and decided to come back to Los Angeles, thus keeping the Clips’ “Big Three” of Jordan, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul intact. With last year’s nucleus back together, LA went out and added Paul Pierce, Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith in the offseason, thus shoring up a roster that was lacking in depth. Look for the veteran Pierce (re-teaming here with his former Boston coach) to take on the stabilizing role he played in Washington last year and offset Paul’s domineering presence as the Clippers — fielding their best-ever roster of talent — look to win their first conference championship and make it to the Finals for the first time in team history.

Are the Rockets for real?
The Clippers’ implosion in last year’s playoffs seemingly had as much to do with their own lack of depth as it did with anything that Houston did on the court. Nonetheless, the Rockets rallied from being down 3-1 — thanks to a game six Clips meltdown (and some lights-out shooting from Houston) that saw them blow a 13-point fourth quarter lead at home before losing 107 to 119 — to make their first trip to the Western Conference Finals since Barkley, Drexler, Olajuwon and company squared off with the Jazz in 1997. Now Dwight Howard is supposedly healthy and point guard Patrick Beverley is back from the wrist injury that kept him out of last year’s playoff run. Better yet, the Rockets added the speedy Ty Lawson in the offseason while picking up both Louisville freak of nature Montrezl Harrell and versatile Wisconsin sharpshooter Sam Dekker in the 2015 draft. Those additions should bolster a line-up that was already one of the deepest in the league — a huge boost for MVP runner-up James Harden. adidas’s $200 million dollar man will have arguably the best supporting cast in the NBA, which could make the Rockets the top contender to Golden State’s repeat run — which brings us to our next question.
A word of caution: Lil B cursed Harden again. So there’s that.

Will Golden State repeat?
The Splash Brothers are back. Draymond’s back. Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut are back. Outside of of David Lee — a former All-Star who rarely played last season and was mercifully shipped off to Boston after becoming the odd man out in Steve Kerr’s championship-winning rotation — the Warriors entire supporting cast (unlikely NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Marreese Speights, etc.) returns for a run at a repeat. And while all this is well and good, repeating is never easy — especially in the daunting Western Conference of 2015′s NBA. Even if the Warriors can recapture last season’s historically great magic, they’ll likely run up against an even tougher slate of conference foes — KD is back and the Thunder (who missed last year’s playoffs entirely) could be the best team in the West — and probably won’t have the fortune of facing a team missing two of its top three players (a la the Kyrie- and Kevin Love-less Cavs) in a return trip to the Finals.

Can LeBron bring a title to Cleveland?
Until King James can secure another Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, it’s safe to say that this will be the question on everyone’s mind entering each and every 82-game slog and subsequent postseason. James has taken the Cavs to the Finals twice now and last season was perhaps his most impressive feat to date as he led a Kyrie- and Kevin Love-less squad to within two games of a championship — ultimately coming up short to the team that had been the best in the league from the outset while averaging nearly a triple-double per contest. But, did the Finals take too much out of James? LeBron’s already received an anti-inflammatory injection in his back to relieve soreness (a problem he’s dealt with throughout his career) and, while 30 isn’t exactly “old,” through twelve seasons in the league, James has already played in 178 playoff games — the equivalent of more than two additional seasons. With the returns of both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love (not to mention Anderson Varejao), James should conceivably be able to let off the gas a bit early on before going all-out toward a title in the latter part of the year.

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