by: Michael Shields
As the NBA laces up for its 2016 – 2017 campaign, Across the Margin takes a look at what to keep an eye on as the season takes flight…
The logical jumping off point in analysis of the forthcoming NBA Season would be in the Bay Area. The Golden State Warriors, a team that won the 2015 NBA Championship, who won 73 regular season games last year and pushed Lebron James and the Cavaliers to 7 games in the NBA Finals, somehow managed to add to their already stout arsenal Kevin Durant, one of the game’s most versatile and dominant performers. Regardless of what you think about Kevin Durant’s potential legacy-damaging decision to jump ship on a perennial contender in Oklahoma City to align with what looks now as a sure bet to win his first NBA Championship, it’s hard not to see why he chose to make the move. Life is short, and NBA careers are far shorter, so when the sun is shining one must make hay. And the sun is shining oh so bright above the Bay Area these days. But will it work? Is there possibly too much talent amassed here?
In 2010, following “The Decision,” Lebron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh assembled a super-team that had many convinced they would easily win 70 plus games and raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy annually for four to five years to follow. But in year one they failed to get it done, losing three straight games to Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals. And just last year, an already robust San Antonio Spurs team, on the heels of signing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to long term deals and adding perennial All-Star Lamarcus Aldridge and the ageless David West, appeared poised to light the sky on fire. There was more hope in San Antonio as the 2015 – 2016 season commenced than will exist Stranger Things costumes on the streets next Monday (Barbs and Dustins and Elevens holding Eggo boxes as far as the eye can see!), but alas they were knocked out in the second round of The Playoffs by Durantula, Westbrook and a blazing hot Thunder squad. The lesson here is that historically great teams on paper, don’t always pan out. So, if not the Warriors, then whom?
The Eastern Conference
The short answer is Cleveland, a city in the midst of a stupefying level of sports bliss. Clevelanders are riding higher than the “Nasty Woman” when she first heard the words, “I moved on her like a bitch.” The title resides in Ohio, and any squad that wants to claim it must seize it from the Rock and Roll Capital of the World (their words, not mine). Barring any compromising injuries to the Cavaliers’ Big Three (James, Irving, Love), Cleveland is going to the NBA Finals. Book it. But this doesn’t mean there aren’t some exciting squads that will be contending for the opportunity to lose to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. Chief among them are the Boston Celtics and the Toronto Raptors.
The Boston Celtics are deeper than a Kubrick film, and after they lost out in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes they added to that depth (Bradley, Crowder, Green, etc, etc.) the NBA’s version of Luke Cage: Al Horford, who in tandem with All-Star Isiah Thomas (raise your hand if you saw that coming….anyone? anyone?) will be a wicked force to be reckoned with. The Toronto Raptors, coming off their best season in team history, winning a franchise-best 56 regular season games, re-upped with Demar Derozan in the off-season to preserve one of the league’s most potent backcourts, and there is no reason he and Kyle Lowry won’t take the Raptors deep into the Playoffs. But while the Celtics and the Raptors are set to make some noise in the East (and then lose to the Cavs in the Conference Finals remember!), there is another squad I am not discounting, one that may come as a surprise to many.
The way in which Indiana Pacers’ forward Paul George performed last season (23.1ppg / 7.1 rebounds) you were almost able to forget the way in which his leg snapped like a twig the year prior. He is back, straight up and down, and the talent he has around him this year is substantial (Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles, Thaddeus Young, Myles Turner, Big Al Jefferson, and Kevin Seraphin). Furthermore, this past June the Pacers acquired in a three-team trade the routinely underrated Jeff Teague, shoring up their backcourt and fashioning a squad that cannot be dismissed. Not buying it? Well, that’s understandable, especially considering the vast majority of true contenders lies in the Western Conference, as per usual.
The Western Conference
As has been the case for far too long in the NBA (get your shit right Eastern Conference!!), The Western Conference is rife with title contenders apart from the Warriors. In contemplation of the short list with the potential to make a run in the West, my heart cannot help but weep for the Los Angeles Clippers. For years now, with the lethal combination of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers have stood on the precipice of greatness. With an unstoppable offense, a brawny defense, a deep and dynamic bench, and Doc Rivers at the helm, it has been borderline heartbreaking to watch this able squad come up short time and again. Compounding matters is the fact that this is their last shot at it, as undoubtedly Griffin and Paul will opt out from their contracts at the end of the year if (when!) things don’t work out, and one of them will set sail (Paul) for brighter skies, thus uncoupling the Twenty-tens version of Stockton and Malone, finally ending their (and our) agony.
Annually, you cannot talk title contenders in the West without a mention of the San Antonio Spurs. While it is hard to imagine that Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have much left to offer, and we cannot expect Tim Duncan to arrive and save the day like Benjen “Coldhands” Stark, with a talent like Kawhi Leonard to build around (and build around talent is what the Spurs brass do best!) the Spurs will no doubt win 55 plus games and be well in the mix. The ageless and still producing Pau Gasol has arrived in San Antonio to replace The Big Fundamental, and if his front court running mate LaMarcus Aldridge can return to the way in which he played in Portland, then the Spurs will be a force to be reckoned with from this day until deep into the Playoffs.
The Western Conference not only contains a band of behemoths, but also a slew of wildcards that cannot be dismissed. The Utah Jazz won 40 games last season and just barely missed the playoffs. Boris Diaw and Joe Johnson have arrived in Salt Lake to show the youngsters how it’s done, and now George Hill is running the point, ending the unfortunate Trey Burke experiment. WIth Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, and Rudy Gobert composing the core of a robust starting five, The Jazz have the potential to end up with home court advantage in the first round of The Playoffs. A bold prediction, but certainly possible. Also in the West, Dirk Nowitzki still has the power to keep Dallas in the playoff picture, and I cannot be the only one that believes that Russell “Negasonic Teenage Warhead” Westbrook will put the Thunder on his back and carry them straight into The Playoffs. The same can be said about Damian Lillard and the Portland Trailblazers.
This season, we are potentially looking at the greatest team in the history of team sports in the 2016 -2017 Golden State Warriors. The talent amassed is just that potent. But unequivocally, the merit of an NBA season lies well beyond how unstoppable one team will be and who the title contenders are. There persists in this 82-game haul the battle for Most Valuable Player (Bron? Curry? Westbrook?), and the analysis of the 2016 rookie class (Dunn! Hield! Embiid! Ingram!!!). This season we get to watch once again as charismatic players come into their own ((Two words – Devon and Booker.)) such as future All-Star mainstays Hassan Whiteside and The Greek Freak (Giannis Antetokounmpo), while James Harden will be going straight nutz in Mike D’antoni’s offense in Houston, and Boogie doing the same in Sacramento. Linsanity returns to the tri-state area this season, and the last two recipients of Rookies of the Year, both on the Minnesota Timberwolves (Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Wiggins), will be showing fans what the future of the league looks like. All eyes might understandably be on Steph Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson ((The Golden State Warriors’ big three of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson combined for 78 points in a 123-112 preseason victory against the Los Angeles Lakers, a potential preview of what is to come this season!)), but the intrigue of the NBA remains vast. Much has changed coming into this season. Kobe and Duncan have left the league after two decades, and after 13 years in Miami Dwyane Wade has taken his talents back to his hometown of Chicago. But will the season end, once again, with Cleveland and Golden State facing off for all the marbles ((They would be the first team in the history of the NBA to meet in three consecutive NBA Finals.)). I can think of worse ways to conclude what is positioned to be another fascinating NBA season.