We here at SC8 couldn’t be more excited for the NBA season to start. Or, well, maybe that’s just me. But as a self-described League Pass junkie (SHOOT THE GOOD STUFF RIGHT INTO MY VEINS, BOYS), I’m thrilled to have pro hoops back. I could preview the whole season in this space — all 30 teams, but I’m lazy and have no interest in writing that (However, if you are interested in that season-long commentary, check here: Stat Boi’s Twitter. I have no life or friends or aspirations, and ramble stupidly about the NBA there. So if that appeals to you, yes, go seek help).
As opposed to a full-blown preview, I’m just going to list out the eight teams that I believe have the best shot at winning the 2016 NBA title, because that’s fun to me, and I like shortcuts and championship rings, which are shinny and give whomever possesses them more value and life karma than their ringless peers.
1. Golden State Warriors
Steph Curry is a cheat code; Klay Thompson was created in a lab to splash jump shots and play with adorable pit bull puppies; Draymond Green will steal your booze, your women and then the basketball from your grasp. This team was sensational last season: 67 wins, a historically great point differential: 10.32 points per 100 possessions – per Basketball Reference, which is insane (the Dubs finished with the No. 1 defensive unit in the league and the second most efficient offense — behind only the Clippers), and of course the freaking championship. They return with basically the entire roster intact – minus David Lee, who I’m sure will be beloved in Boston this season.
The Western Conference is a minefield, and making it out of that zone of danger will be brutally challenging, but the Warriors are young, they’re healthy, and they can play some simply beautiful basketball on offense. Riley Curry is in the mix, too – we can’t forget that.
Steph, meanwhile, is playing a different brand of basketball than anyone else has in the history of the game. I grew up on Jesus Shuttlesworth, and I was certain I’d never see a better shooter. However, I was wrong: Curry is a total paradigm shift. He launched 646 threes last season (the league leader in that category — and the third straight season he’s launched 600 or more threes; bombs away), good for 8.1 attempts per game, and connected on a ridiculous 44.3 percent of them. This is especially insane considering that over 40 percent of his 3FGs aren’t assisted. This dude is cooking fools off the bounce and raining 27-foot moonshots in the faces of those helpless defenders. He’s a gem; treat him as such.
Is this squad going to win 67 wins again this season? No, almost certainly not – but they’re going win a bunch (61 seems about right). Let’s continue with the rhetorical questions, shall we? Will this team have the same injury luck that they had a season ago — when a preseason injury to Lee, then the team’s starting power forward, allowed them to discover the Draymond Green Defensive Torture Chamber? To quote Lana Kane, nooooope (hey look, my second Archer reference). But we need to cease overthinking this thing: Steve Kerr’s team is stacked, and they’ll be ready to defend their throne. You come at the king, you best not miss.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
Speaking of kings…look, it’s LeBron James! Last season, which seems like it ended just three weeks ago (Summer, where have you gone? Seriously.), Cleveland fell just two wins short of the title. To recall just how impressive this feat is, you must remember the roster they trotted out: Grit Monster Matthew Dellavedova, Miami Beach chill wave legend James Jones, Kendrick Freaking Perkins, who is more cinder block than useful NBA player. WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE? The newly-minted $82-million man Tristan Thompson (welcome to the NBA in 2015, y’all) was the team’s second best player, as they tried to take a shot at the Warriors — a historically great, 67-win juggernaut — without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. And Andy Varejao, too, you guys! Thompson is a helluva rebounder and a quality defender, but make zero mistakes – LeBron was doing God’s work.
The Eastern Conference, for what seems like the 16th straight season, is weak — good news for the Cavs, who should cruise to a second straight conference title. What may get lost by some during an at times messy 2015-16 campaign in Cleveland: When LBJ, Kyrie and Love were on the floor at the same time, this team played like they were engulfed in flames. The Cavs went 34-10 over the last 44 games of the regular season, and outscored opponents by a net of 13.6 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Reference — even better than that aforementioned Golden State differential — when the trio shared the floor together. And — sound the STRONG TAKE alarm — in case you didn’t know, this is sports we’re talking about, and outscoring your opponent is key.
While Irving blossomed in his first season playing alongside LeBron — becoming the best secondary attack man in the NBA, and being named to his first All-NBA roster — Love slumped. Now, slump is a relative term — he still averaged 16 and 10 while shooting 37 percent from deep, which is damn good. But it wasn’t the All-NBA caliber play we’d become accustomed to with Love. This, however, will change; the Cavs will find better ways to involve Love — likely around the elbows — and not just station him in the corner to shoot j’s and treys. Their spacing will be pristine, and Timofey Mozgov is the perfect rim-running compliment to suck defenders in around the big three. The Russian big fella is an excellent paint protector on defense, too. Shump and JR will do some stuff as well.
The league’s most expensive roster — Whattup, Dan Gilbert? If only checks could be signed in comic sans — has injury concerns, which could be problematic, but LeBron’s gunning for that third ring, man. This roster is ferocious, and this team will be a monster if they’re healthy come April. A rematch in the Finals would be dope. See you boys in June.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
Simply put: there isn’t a more interesting team heading into the 2015-16 season than the Thunder. I remember watching the 2012 NBA Finals, and it seemed like an inevitability that OKC would be back here every year. They were just so damn young and good and christ how could anyone stop the team of the future? Only a few months after that title run, which fell just short, OKC dealt James Harden to Houston — an almost unforgivable move, especially considering that the Thunder controlled Harden for one more season (2012-13 would’ve been the final year on his cheap, rookie deal — gulp).
Much to the dismay of the Thunder’s front office and fans, this trade has been nitpicked by everyone a million times over, as Harden has emerged as an annual MVP candidate in H-Town. The Thunder have always stayed in the thick of things thanks to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — two otherworldly talents who can get buckets on anyone and will always be in the MVP discussion — and defensive menace Serge Ibaka, who has also developed into a very nice stretch-four on offense. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a more snakebitten team in the NBA over the past three seasons: injuries, especially to Westbrook and KD, have crippled their ability to win the West; it’s been heartbreaking.
Now for the juicy stuff, though — it’s been discussed ad nauseam, but Durant hits unrestricted free agency next July; OKC must do whatever it takes to retain Durant, and there probably isn’t a better recruiting pitch (other than “look at all of this money” — the Thunder will be able to offer more cash and more years than any other interested team, assuming KD is in fact looking for a multi-year deal, which isn’t a certainty) than winning a title. This team’s title window could be closed within the next calendar year, if Durant jumps town — which would be sad and should mortify each and every stakeholder of this franchise.
I think Durant will stick — at least in the short term, regardless of what happens this season, barring something unforeseen happening. But it would a complete disaster if the No. 2 basketball player in the world left town with nothing in return.
The supporting cast is…intriguing, and not nearly as cool as this Kast. Charlotte, NC native Anthony Morrow can splash 3s, Kyle Singler’s ghoulish complexion (a disaster in OKC last season) can stay in its lane and contribute, and Steven Adams is a young brute in the post. But Dion Waiters is a punchline, as he stands in the corner and yells hopelessly at Westbrook to pass him the ball; Anthony Roberson shoots worse than I do; and Enes Kanter, who was actually really good offensively the last quarter of the 14-15 season for OKC, will be paid $70 million over the next four years to come of the bench and be the worst defensive big man in the NBA – it’s a weird mix. Man, that Kanter deal…all of the lolz, dude.
Oh, by the way, Billy Donovan is here to coach this team! Welcome to the NBA, Billy! No pressure, man! I’m assuming things will be tougher against the West for Donovan for the first time in years. I don’t think Ole Miss is going to pop up on the schedule any longer. Also, I can’t wait to see the 2-2-1 used against an NBA-level point guard. Should be good fun for all involved.
I think Donovan will be good, but geez, he’s been thrust into a pressure cooker. Regardless of who is coaching OKC, this team on their ‘by any means’ will be scary. Look out.
4. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs won their first NBA title when I was in third grade; the fact that these guys are still contending with Duncan and Pop and Parker and Ginobili is just insane. All of those dudes are still here — along with the resigned Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green — and LaMarcus Aldridge is in town, too — after cruelly turning his back on Portlandia and the Women and Women First bookstore.
In 2015 we, as sports fans, are obsessed with the transaction. Free agency, trades, signings have become a massive part of the sports landscape, especially so in the NBA, where the salary cap is being projected to jump around $20 million in EACH of the next two years (current projections have the cap slotted to be $108 million in 2017). Well, the Spurs — the stupidly presumed most boring franchise in the league; I hope these people still don’t exist — won this past offseason.
There are questions over how LMA will fit into the Spurs nonstop passing machine on the offensive end. Is he too much of a ball-stopper to fit? My response to these concerns: Who freaking cares? Aldridge is an incredibly gifted forward, who can play some center, too. He and Duncan should work together nicely. Leonard is part land shark, part pterodactyl; there isn’t a bigger defensive force in the league. He can check four different positions, roam the court in terrifying fashion, picking off passes and causing havoc for terrified ball handlers. His offensive game truly blossomed the last half of the season, too. If that keeps up, Kawhi’s an MVP candidate. Green gives them a cold blooded sniper from beyond the arc — one of the best catch-and-shoot marksman in the NBA, and if Tony Parker is healthy — a legit concern — this team’s starting lineup will destroy worlds.
Tiago Splitter is in Atlanta now — a big loss, especially on defense — but Boris Diaw is still here chugging wine, wearing flip-flops, and causing mismatches on the offensive end. If this team is healthy come playoff time — you know they’ll be well-rested — then San Antonio will make Golden State’s run at going back-to-back incredibly difficult. Tim Duncan is the best. Long live the Zombie Spurs. May god have mercy on our souls.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
(Disclaimer: I’m totally in the tank for Chris Paul. He’s awesome, and if you disagree, then I hate you more than I do Guy Fieri. Look at this man. LOOK AT HIM)
The absolute No. 1 highlight of the 2014-15 season for me was Game 7 of the Clips-Spurs playoff series — an epic 111-109 victory for LA, keyed by an amazing performance from Chris Paul (27 points, 9-13 shooting, 6 assists), who was playing with a bum leg at the time (It probably doesn’t speak too highly of me that a first round playoff series was the top highlight for old Stat Boi; this is my lot in life; it’s sad). My buddy Ross and I hugged each other after the game, I think. That sounds sad and should’ve been kept private, but I regret nothing.
Not long after that game, though, the Clippers season went down in flames — an epic collapse in the second round to Houston. I’m still scarred. Luckily, I was able to neutralize the sting of that closeout game with gin and tonics, SC8 style, on the grounds of Quail Hollow during the final round of the Wells Fargo Tournament. I think Rory McIlroy ended up winning?
There are plenty of skeptics surrounding the Clippers, and a lot of that noise is pretty stupid. Seriously, ignore the mouthbreathers who think Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can’t get it done in the playoffs because of some presumed missing clutch gene or whatever. Look, they’re are plenty of reasons to worry about the Clips: who will they start at small forward? How much can their defense improve? Will emoji prisoner DeAndre Jordan’s horrific free throw tendencies submarine the team’s title hopes?
DJ’s always going to be bricky from the charity stripe, but the defense — this year using a more conservative and conventional approach — should be much improved. The newly acquired Paul Pierce may not start at the 3, but he’ll give them some much needed minutes at that slot, and he has some small-ball utility as an old and undersized 4.
On offense, though — my god, that offense — the Clips will once again be glorious. CP3 continues to be arguably the best point guard in the world; he runs the show, drains threes and torches dudes from the midrange — where he’s essentially a 6-foot Nowitzki. The contemporary offense of the NBA is all about high ball screens and spread pick-and-roll action. No one in this solar system is better at this than Paul (apologies to Jyqab Uots, who is the top floor general on Mars). When he’s on the court, LAC shoots at a higher clips, scores way more, defends better, turns it over less — they’re objectively better in every metric, by wide margins, when the Point God is playing. J.J. Redick and Paul make beautiful basketball together; Jordan dunks EVERYTHING. An aging Pierce is back out West to hit big shots and rip out the hearts of his victims. Josh Smith is, perhaps sadly, the best backup big guy Los Angeles has employed since Paul arrived in 2011. Laugh all you want over his ill-advised long-2s, Smith is a playmaker, who will function nicely in the Clips offense.
Lance Stephenson is here, too, which is hella unfortunate. Dude is a malcontent and last season in Charlotte was an unmitigated disaster — for more than one reason. But if that nut job can approach the two-way beast he was just two years ago, he’ll be massive contributor. They need his attention on defense.
In Griffin and Paul, this team possesses two of the ten best basketball players on planet Earth. Those who think all Griffin can do is dunk on unsuspecting defenders clearly don’t watch him play. His talent is limitless. He’s closer to LeBron than he is to Shawn Kemp, and this team’s pick-and-roll offense — with Paul and Griffin as the battery, Redick spotting in the corner and DJ lurking around the rim for slams — is freaking unstoppable. This might be their year.
6. Houston Rockets
James Harden is basketball nihilism. He cares nothing about your entertainment value; he is unconcerned with your hatred for his style of play. Read some Camus and stare into those soulless eyes, seated just north of that highly marketable beard. You will see into oblivion. Then he’ll pump fake you and draw a shooting foul. Gotta stay focused on D, son.
Say what you will about Harden, he’s an amazing player – and the best shooting guard in the galaxy. It’s tough to fathom, especially considering the value of CP3, Bron, Curry and Anthony Davis — but no one was more important to their team than Harden was to the Rockets a year ago. He saved this team’s cookies on a nightly basis, at times putting the entire offense on his back. He’ll be even better this season, and now Ty Lawson — acquired for some loose lint — is here. Lawson is really good, and if he can avoid some dangerous habits off the court, the former UNC point guard can add even more firepower to this roster, which will lighten the load for Harden.
This team has long-limbed athletes up and down the roster. Dwight Howard uses his amazing size/skill and powerful farts to protect the rim. Seriously, who wants to come into this man’s lane without a can of Febreeze? If he’s healthy, like he was in the playoffs a year ago, Howard will be a destructive force. Pat Beverly is a defensive maven; K.J. McDaniels will contribute in all kinds of cool ways. Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, and Clint Capela are all talented and provide this team with an incredibly deep front court. D-MOOOOOO.
I think there’s a drop-off in title contention from the Clips to the Rockets, but it’s a mild one. This team is crazy dangerous. They will run up and down the court, bomb a million three-pointers and shoot even more free throws. When they go small, and Harden, Lawson and Beverly share the floor together, they should roast suckers.
They’ll contend — just don’t expect existential bliss.
7. Chicago Bulls
Okay, at this point I’m just trying to get to the full eight aforementioned teams; I mean, it’s in the title and everything, so we’ve gotta get it done, you guys.
(Note: I should’ve started writing this thing earlier.)
This team will win 50 games and should finish No. 2 in the East fairly easily — although Atlanta really intrigues me. Fred Hoiberg (pictured above) is here now, which is fun: he’s an early-offense guy, which I like, and he’ll be much smarter than his predecessor at managing minutes. Sorry Thibs, but as it turns out, rest is a good thing for athletes. There’s like data and stuff that supports this, too. Damn scientists. Nerds.
Jimmy Butler is seriously awesome; Derrick Rose probably won’t ever be the same, but he’s a force in the slash-and-kick department. Joakim Noah is supposedly healthy, and that’s good. Pau Gasol and Nik Mirotic give this team’s offense that always important Spanish fusion.
The roster of the roster is quality, top to bottom, and it’s going to be fun watching them hoop this season. But eh…I’m just not really buying them as a legitimate title contender. There’s a steep drop from Houston to Chicago, in my opinion.
8. Charlotte Hornets
I know we here at SC8 pronounced the Hornets dead in the water a few weeks ago, following Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s devastating injury. But screw it. GOOOO BUZZZZ. I look forward to popping champagne will all of you beautiful people in Charlotte next June.