As the 2015-2016 NBA season begins this week, there are plenty of storylines to pay attention to. First off, the Golden State Warriors will be defending their title, returning the nucleus of their championship roster from a year ago. Of course, the Warriors play in the loaded Western Conference, which seemed to even get better during the offseason. LaMarcus Aldridge joined the suddenly loaded San Antonio Spurs, opening up their championship window by a decade (it feels like at least). Also in the West, you have the whole DeAndre Jordan saga with the Los Angeles Clippers that has the Clips looking like contenders once again. Oh, and some guy named Kevin Durant is back and ready to lead the Oklahoma City Thunder back to the postseason after dealing with injuries for the majority of the 2014-2015 season.
That’s just the Western Conference. In the Eastern Conference, the main team making headlines is the Cleveland Cavaliers, who will be looking to make it back to the NBA Finals once again this season. The question isn’t whether or not the Cavs will repeat in the East; instead, it’s who can stop them? While some teams clearly improved in the NBA’s weaker conference, Cleveland still appears to be the cream of the crop.
With those storylines in mind, here are our five expectations for the upcoming NBA season.
1. The Milwaukee Bucks will make some serious noise
After making the playoffs last season and making some impressions against the Chicago Bulls, the Milwaukee Bucks have become relevant (somewhat) on the NBA landscape, yes. However, with the offseason the Bucks had, it might be time to consider this team a legitimate threat to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Milwaukee managed to sign big man Greg Monroe in free agency, which could turn out to be a bigger acquisition than people are making it out to be. Monroe had maybe the best season of his career with the Detroit Pistons in 2014, averaging nearly 16 points and 10 rebounds per game. He should provide the Bucks with a solid presence down low.
Outside of Monroe, the players that Milwaukee already had on their roster are pretty good themselves. Giannis Antetokounmpo has more than a great nickname (“the Greek Freak”). He is a ultra-talented wing that could have a breakout year in 2015-2016. The backcourt of Michael Carter-Williams and Khris Middleton is loaded with major potential as well. Also, Jabari Parker will be returning from an injured rookie campaign, and he’s got the tools to be a major contributor to the Bucks’ cause as well.
This team has talent at every position and, despite their youth, they could be ready to make a serious run in the playoffs. Whether they can challenge the Cavaliers or not remains to be seen.
2. The Houston Rockets will suffer a setback
The Houston Rockets had a great run to the Western Conference Finals last year, led by the MVP-runner up in James Harden. They added some pieces in the offseason to try and make it even further, most notably point guard Ty Lawson. They still have Dwight Howard down low, who can be dominate when he’s on his game. Despite all of this, Houston appears primed to take a step back this season.
It’s not that the Rockets will miss out on the postseason or anything. They are still clearly one of the eight best teams in the West, even if the conference is loaded. Expecting an NBA Finals berth or even a return trip to the conference finals seems like a stretch, however. You look at the improvement of the Spurs, the strength of the Clippers and Warriors, and the return to prominence of the Thunder, there are just too many teams ahead of the Rockets at this point. Anything can happen, of course, but an early round exit could be the Rockets’ fate this season.
3. Anthony Davis takes home the MVP award
Few players can impact the game as much as Anthony Davis. His defense, his athleticism, his scoring, his ball skills; it’s all there. Last season, in his third season in the league, Davis averaged 24 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, nearly 3 blocks, and 1.5 steals per game for the New Orleans Pelicans, leading the team to a playoff berth. It wouldn’t have been a huge surprise if Davis won the MVP award last season. This season, the big man should be even better.
Davis has the rare, LeBron James-like ability to carry a team on his back and take them to levels where they maybe don’t belong. The Pelicans’ roster, outside of Davis, doesn’t appear overly imposing, but with Davis present, New Orleans is a legitimate threat to make the playoffs once again in the West and even make some noise once they get there. If Davis ups his production and ups the win total for the Pelicans, the MVP award will be all but his.
4. Kevin Durant wins the scoring title
It’s going to be a positive for everyone to have Kevin Durant back on the floor this season. When watching the NBA in 2014-2015, something felt off without Durant making highlight reel plays night in and night out. It’s probably because when this guy is on the court, he is arguably one of the top two or three players in the world. Even with his backcourt mate in Russell Westbrook taking home the scoring title a season ago, Durant might be primed to regain his rightful place atop the scoring throne this year.
Prior to his injury plagued campaign, Durant had won 4 out of 5 scoring titles for the Thunder. His ability to score from about anywhere on the court is matched by no other player in the league. His size and length make his shot nearly impossible to block. His speed and athleticism make him nearly impossible to cover. Durant is truly a matchup nightmare who has accomplished so much in his eight-season career. With his impending free agency looming, expect him to absolutely go off this year.
5. NBA Finals will match the Spurs against the Cavaliers
With how much talent there is on the San Antonio Spurs roster, anything short of an NBA title seems like an utter failure for this perennial contender. Aldridge is obviously a great signing, but he’s far from the only move the Spurs made in the offseason. Resigning Kawhi Leonard was critical to the core of the team, as he’s developed into a great all-around player. They also increased their depth with players like David West. Of course, the likes of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and the great Tim Duncan are still on deck as well. It’s not going to be easy by any measure for the Spurs to win the West, but with how well they are coached by Gregg Popovich coupled with their talent, they should be able to get it done.
The path for the Cleveland Cavaliers is much easier than that of the Spurs and with a great trio of players, a repeat eastern conference title seems more than likely. LeBron James did a lot of the heavy lifting in the postseason on his own with Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving injured, but with those guys healthy, this is a team that could very well win 65-plus games this season. The team’s role player’s in J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson also make a big difference for the Cavs. Their competition in the East, while improved, simply doesn’t impose enough of a challenge for them.
This would be a familiar finals matchup: LeBron James vs. the Spurs. They’ve been a thorn in James’s side for so long, but this season, his Cavs should be able to take home the franchise’s long awaited first championship.