Fans usually look for the upcoming season to live up to higher standards than the previous one, and the ‘14-‘15 NBA campaign is expected to exceed last season’s level of excitement in many ways. For some fans, excitement is seeing the same team make the Finals over and over again. Others are captivated by a brand new team arriving as a contender after a long, devastating period of losing games. And some fans could care less, as long as they have a comfortable couch, something to snack on, and NBA League Pass. (What did we do before League Pass? It is so awesome to flip to the last minute of any game of your choice and see an exciting finish of any sort. The true NBA fans should be able to vouch for me on that one.)
The Ancient: As long as Tim Duncan is there, so are the Spurs.
To say it has been a long ride for the about-to-be 17-year veteran big man would be a major understatement. Very few players, especially in this day and age, stick with one team for an entire career. (Just ask Paul Pierce.) Duncan has not only worn a Spurs jersey for each and every game of his Hall of Fame career, he has taken a substantial pay cut in the twilight of his dominance in order to keep San Antonio’s cap sheet nice and tidy. On the other hand, there are also very few sports franchises that consistently provide the talent, personnel, stability, and value, among other things, that the San Antonio Spurs provide.
(Dirk Nowitzki also deserves recognition as his heart and body has remained in Dallas for his whole career. Don’t get me wrong — Dallas is one of the league’s most respectable franchises. But the Spurs are simply in a class of their own.)
We are going into the 13th year and running of San Antonio’s Big Three era. While Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have shown some flashes of aging, these three special talents have truly found a way to avoid suffering any major decline — something that is a reality for most players over the age of 32. During a period which many assumed the San Antonio dynasty was finally coming to an end, San Antonio has gone an astonishing 231-81 over the past four seasons, captured the no. 1 seed in the West three times and ultimately went on to win the 2014 NBA Finals.
Every change a team makes from year-to-year demands some level of adjustment; what makes professional sports even trickier, of course, is dealing with 29 other teams and all of their changes, and a constantly evolving set of financial and operational rules. Running a successful sports franchise is calculus. And yet, R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich make it look easy.
It is as if every new Spur somehow gets the ultimate winner’s DNA encoded into their blood. (Word to Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Boris Diaw, and others.) The quality of leadership within this franchise is something else. It’s never about one guy, and always about the Spurs way. It is a well-oiled machine that just keeps on moving.
The Old New: The Thunder are still a young contender, but does it have what it takes to finally get over the hump?
The former Seattle Supersonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder just before the start of the ‘08-‘09 NBA season. Not too many fans were sure how that would work out and, not to mention, the franchise seemed to lose many of its fans from Seattle. But Kevin Durant’s claim to fame came not too long after he was drafted by the Sonics and that drew fans from all over the country.
OKC finished the ‘08-‘09 season at 23-59 — its last losing record for the foreseeable future — which enabled the squad to draft James Harden and add to its already promising duo of Durant and Russell Westbrook. Then the ‘09-‘10 season rolled around and the preposterously talented young Thunder were done playing games. It didn’t take long for OKC’s ability to translate into winning, using its youth and athleticism to blow many of its competitors away. OKC’s phenomenal Big Three of Westbrook, Harden and Durant reached the Finals in 2012, which seemed to be far from their last…
A couple years have gone by since the foolish Harden trade, and suddenly it could be now-or-never for this hungry group. Oklahoma City has established itself as a small but somewhat stable market as it has managed to retain its two biggest stars. The Thunder will be on national television 25 times this season, and why not? Durant and Westbrook ultimately generate publicity; non-basketball fans turn on the TV to watch them play.
However, through OKC’s ups and downs, the Western Conference has just gotten stronger. The Spurs, Clippers, and Grizzlies are among the teams that have given Durant and company a brutal challenge in trying to return to the NBA Finals. This year will probably determine the future of Durant and Westbrook. Steven Adams quickly became player down-low who moves the needle, and Reggie Jackson is an exciting guard who is probably deserving of more playing time (averages 16.5 points, 5.2 assists, and 4.9 rebounds per 36 minutes).
And as the rumors fly about Durant’s allegiance to his hometown of Washington D.C., there is no doubt Scott Brooks needs to do a better job managing his team this postseason, because now the pressure to win an NBA title is higher than ever.
Back for more: Two familiar teams are retooled and ready to compete for another title
Two seasons ago marked the first time the Dallas Mavericks had missed the postseason in 12 seasons. Last season, they barely snuck in as the no. 8 seed in a loaded West. Just don’t be fooled by Dallas’ irregular struggles following its 2011 NBA title. 36-year-old Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs are climbing back up the ladder this season with a couple of key additions: Tyson Chandler, who played a large role in delivering the Mavs a 2011 Championship, is back in town; and Chandler Parsons, who saw a huge payday this summer ($46 million over three years) but is a necessary risk for Dallas to bring its franchise back to the top. (It’s also a fantastic shot at in-state rival Houston.)
On top of that, because of their success in the past decade, this franchise is not one I would doubt. I previously mentioned the Mavs in my section about the Spurs: these teams and their Hall of Fame stars have one of the ultimate rivalries in the NBA. Although Dallas only has one ring in the past 15 years compared to San Antonio’s five, it has never gone down without a challenge. Dallas has defeated San Antonio in the postseason in 2006 and 2009 while the Spurs have won in 2001, 2003, 2010, and 2014. Dallas could not have been any closer to defeating the eventual champions in the first-round, as it ironically gave Parker and the Spurs, by far, their toughest matchup of the postseason.
Chicago fans are screaming “finally,” while trying not to jinx it. 2011 MVP Derrick Rose knows the burden is on his shoulders to make Chicago a championship contender. After excellent training and advising by Chicago’s doctors and training staff, Rose is ready to lead Chicago to an NBA title. He has experienced the ups (winning MVP) and the downs (career-altering injuries). Tom Thibodeau is a defensive mastermind as the Bulls’ success always starts and finishes with their other-worldly defensive intensity. Chicago’s defensive efficiency rating of 0.984 has been the best in the NBA in the past five years, and last season the Bulls finished no. 2 overall in defense.
But it is no secret you need outside shooting to break through and prove your team can actually win a championship. Perimeter shooting has been Chicago’s biggest flaw the past five years. However, Chicago made a few key additions this offseason which addressed that problem: trading for 2014 National Player of the Year Doug McDermott and signing Nikola Mirotic, a promising 6-10 frame who has potential to be one of the best European players in this league. In addition, the Bulls signed Pau Gasol, who collected a couple rings in six full seasons with the Lakers. Gasol’s been known as an extremely rare-breed big who can do just about everything on offense — from playmaking to consistently nailing his smooth short-to-midrange jumper.
The Relatively New: Clippers wear the Los Angeles crown… for now.
The two Los Angeles teams have not often been viewed as arch-rivals, but this should change. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and the Clips have been the dominant team the past couple years after this franchise has suffered through multiple years of Laker greatness. They have beat the Lakers in seven of the pair’s last eight contests. However, the proportion of Laker fans still seems to top that of the Clippers in the city of Angels. Again, that is because of the extraordinarily rich history of the purple-and-gold franchise. Yes, Laker fans are well aware their team has stumbled behind the younger and more powerful Clipper team.
However, there is one very obvious reason Los Angeles Laker fans remain dedicated: trust. From Jack Nicholson to your ordinary L.A. Laker fan who paints himself yellow and purple each game, this fan-base understands the circumstances surrounding this trademark franchise. They believe this historically commendable team will find a way to regain the throne within the next two years. Being injured is never a positive, but there is some good that came with Kobe Bryant’s injury. He was quoted as saying, “I can see myself playing at least three more years (after recovering from a major achilles injury).” Plain and simple: nobody is going to doubt the words of the great Kobe Bryant.
The Rejuvenated: Fear the Sword because it is now far more dangerous than before
We all know what happened: James joined forces with a new set of superstars, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, to try and make a run at a couple more titles. Only this time, it is different. He is doing it for his hometown and he strongly feels he owes it to the city to get it that ring he has long promised. That being said, there is a significant difference in the talent James is able to attract this go-around. In his first eight years with Cleveland, players really did not desire playing there because it was a small market and an unproven franchise. Now that James has two rings and has proven himself a winner with great talent around him, other pieces are much more willing to join James in his quest to earn Cleveland a title.
Some of those pieces include: one-time champion Shawn Marion, who beat James and the Heat in the 2011 Finals, as well as a pair of long-range gunners in Mike Miller and James Jones. But it isn’t only about the players who were added, but also about the players who were affected. James is by far the best in the league at making other players around him better. That is the main reason he has easily raveled in four MVP trophies. The Cavaliers’ locker room last season was a whirlpool of heavy emotion. Dion Waiters had accused Irving and Tristan Thompson of playing “keep-away” among any other problems that went unnoticed outside the Cavalier organization.
Simply put, there was no chemistry between these players. But the second James announced his return to Cleveland, attitudes changed and players knew they had to straighten up. That is just the type of power King James has. I won’t get too far ahead of myself and go into too much detail of what to expect from Cleveland this year. However, it is largely anticipated that the Cavs and the Chicago Bulls will be the last two standing in the Eastern Conference.
The New: The rest of the pack
The Portland Trail Blazers were perhaps the NBA’s most improved team last year, improving by 21 wins. Although they may not exactly be championship contending material, the Blazers have a legitimate All-Star duo in Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Their ceiling is likely the Western Conference Finals.
The Golden State Warriors have been pacing themselves, but not exactly improving a great deal, the last couple years. Everyone knows they live and die by the perimeter shot as they rank amongst the best shooting teams year-in and year-out. The front office passed up on an opportunity to acquire Kevin Love because it felt it was giving up too much and dissecting the core of the team. Steve Kerr takes the keys this season in trying to lead the sharpshooting backcourt of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to the promised land.
For the final team I will discuss in the West, it is the Rockets, who I am not particularly high on for a few different reasons: A) they have far from championship chemistry (Dwight Howard and James Harden supposedly eat separately from the other players), B) James Harden, who is a fantastic player, pounds the ball way too much and there is limited ball movement in the offense, and C) They probably got worse this offseason by swapping Parsons for a cheaper Trevor Ariza during free agency, losing a solid point guard in Jeremy Lin, and getting rid of an elite basket protector and backup center in Omer Asik.
In an article I wrote on Miami losing LeBron James, I stressed that Miami should still be expected to compete for championships. Miami may not strike your mind as a contender anymore, especially since it had an extraordinarily tough time with James last season. Dwyane Wade is clearly not the same player he used to be. People were highly critical of Chris Bosh the last few years, but now is his time to get revenge. There is no James to dominate the ball. Bosh will now be the number one option on offense, which he is definitely capable of being, and could very well get some MVP buzz this year.
About a year or two ago, analysts would describe the Washington Wizards as “young” and “inexperienced.” Those labels no longer apply for a team that missed an opportunity to compete in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals. The Wiz have a young backcourt in John Wall and Bradley Beal. However, the two already make up arguably the second best backcourt in basketball, behind Golden State’s Curry and Thompson. John Wall led the league with 721 assists last season. But the rest of Washington’s lineup is pretty darn old: Paul Pierce is going on 37, Nene Hilario is 32, and Marcin Gortat turns 31 around the All-Star break. Don’t dismiss the Washington Wizards by any means.
Finally, the Toronto Raptors were the pleasant surprise in the Eastern Conference last year, finishing third in the East with a record of 48-34. There really isn’t one specific reason the Raptors excelled in a down Eastern Conference last year. They were just all-around solid; they had great leadership with Kyle Lowry running the point, a viable go-to scorer in DeMar DeRozan (22.7 PPG), and a serviceable, aggressive center in Jonas Valanciunas. However, Toronto’s defensive effort and fantastic chemistry is likely what kept the motor running. This season should be the same type of story for the Raptors.
There is a whole lot to look out for in the NBA this season. There are sure to be sweet surprises as well as spoiling letdowns. But we should all get one thing straight: old doesn’t necessarily mean boring and new doesn’t necessarily mean entertaining. Basketball is a make-or-miss game and there are no guarantees what-so-ever. Winning is credited the same way, no matter the place, shape, and form. Five-time champion Tim Duncan and those pesky Spurs cemented for all basketball fans last season just how much of a team game it really is.
Zach Tennen (@ZTennen11) is a staff writer for The High Screen and a senior at the University of Arizona.