The 2016-17 NBA season tips off on Tuesday, unveiling the first chapter in several storylines around the league this year.
A lot has happened in the league since the end of last season, contributing to rivalries between teams, creating new enemies for players, and causing bad blood between players and their former organizations.
Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City to sign with the Golden State Warriors, and Russell Westbrook is now locked in, for at least two years, as the lone superstar on the Thunder. Veteran shooting guard Dwyane Wade left the Miami Heat to sign with his hometown team, the Chicago Bulls, and former Bulls players Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah have joined the New York Knicks.
In the midst of all of these moves, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are looking to defend their franchise’s first championship after they defeated the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, bringing the city of Cleveland its first major sports championship in 52 years.
With all of this and more, here are some predictions for the upcoming season.
Eastern Conference Champions: Cleveland Cavaliers
Coming into this season, the Cavs are the favorites to make it to the Finals again, and rightfully so. This season’s Cavs team might be better than the teams of the last two seasons, with the pressure to win a championship is gone. They know what it takes to get back to the Finals and to win it all.
Unlike the past two seasons, the Cavs will begin this season fully healthy and with Tyronn Lue as their head coach. After re-establishing himself as the best all-around player in the world after his MVP performance in the 2016 Finals, James will have an MVP caliber season, and Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving will both have their best seasons as Cavaliers. Add in key acquisitions of veteran sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy and Chris “Birdman” Anderson, and the Cavs look geared to make their third consecutive NBA Finals.
However, they will be tested, as the Indiana Pacers, the Boston Celtics, the Knicks and the Bulls have improved their rosters. But in a seven-game series in the postseason, none of the Eastern Conference teams will be able to stop Cleveland.
Western Conference Champions: Golden State Warriors
For Golden State fans, the mourning of losing in the NBA Finals after having a 3-1 series lead was put to rest quickly this offseason when Durant signed with the Warriors. The Warriors, known for their deep bench and their “strength in numbers” slogan, lost several key players in the offseason, including Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut and Marreese Speights, to name a few. But replacing these players is Durant, arguably one of the top three players in the league.
Not to mention, the team also still has back-to-back MVP Steph Curry, who was the league’s first unanimous MVP in history. Add in Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and offseason addition David West, and the Warriors come into the season as the odds-on favorite to not only make it to the Finals, but to win it all.
While they will be challenged by the ever-present San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Thunder, the Warriors will be a handful for any team in a single game, let alone a best-of-seven series. The Warriors will not win 73 games again. But after they start to click, they may be the regular season’s most dominant team yet again.
NBA Champions: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs and Warriors seem to be on a crash course to meet for the third straight season in the NBA Finals, potentially making one of the greatest Finals trilogies in NBA history. If everything goes according to plan and both teams come into the championship round at full force, it will be the ultimate finale to the trilogy.
While both teams know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, the addition of Kevin Durant will change the dynamic of the series. But like most super teams, the Warriors will face problems in their first year together and won’t be able to close the deal. James has been Durant’s biggest weakness throughout his career, and this Cavs team has gotten over the hump and is more confident now than ever.
This may be the best team James will ever play on. The series will be another great one, and might even go to seven games again. But in the end, the Cavs will win their second consecutive NBA Championship.
MVP: Russell Westbrook
Now that Durant is out of Oklahoma City, Westbrook will not have to worry about taking a back seat this season. He is now the No. 1 option for the Thunder. He will take the last shot in a close game, and he will have the ball in his hands at the game’s most crucial moments. Already a top-five player, Westbrook is one of the league’s most ruthless competitors and is capable of averaging almost 30 points per game this season. With his athleticism and explosiveness at the point guard position, he has the chance to average close to a triple-double. While the Thunder likely will not be as good as they were last year, Westbrook will shine in his new role and put the league on notice.
All-NBA First Team
(G) Steph Curry – Golden State Warriors
(G) Russell Westbrook – Oklahoma City Thunder
(F) LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers
(F) Kevin Durant – Golden State Warriors
(C) DeAndre Jordan – Los Angeles Clippers
Scoring Champion: James Harden – Houston Rockets
Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens – Boston Celtics
Rookie of the Year: Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers
Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard – San Antonio Spurs
Most improved player: D’Angelo Russell – Los Angeles Lakers
Sixth Man of the Year: Jamal Crawford – Los Angeles Clippers