With the unique off-season had by the Cleveland Cavaliers, according to Las Vegas, the Cavs are now a five to two favorite to win the 2015 NBA Title. With a reinvigorated LeBron James at the core of a new ‘Big 3’, many anticipate the Cavs will mow over the Eastern Conference and walk into the NBA Finals unscathed. With the betting odds in favor of the Wine and Gold, there are a few teams out there that will undoubtedly have something to say about who will be honored as the NBA’s next champion.
San Antonio Spurs
The dust had barely settled in San Antonio when LeBron announced his decision to return to Cleveland, and the basketball world had already forgotten. We had forgotten that the Spurs’ playoff run of last summer only had one series go seven games. We had forgotten that even though the Spurs had the best regular season record in the NBA, they still had to play David to the Heat’s Goliath in the NBA Finals.
While most teams have spent their off seasons courting high priced free agents in an attempt to upgrade their roster, the Spurs have basically stayed put with the guys they already have. All-Star point guard Tony Parker has signed a three-year, $43.3 extension that should carry him through his career. Veteran role players Boris Diaw and Patty Mills inked new deals as well.
The Spurs are the biggest challenger to the Cavs for next year’s championship because San Antonio truly replicates the right way to play the game. They share the ball, they team rebound, they play defense as a unit and they rarely ever appear stagnant on offense. As was the case in the early 2000’s, the Spurs are now a lot less reliant on dominance from future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. Instead, they focus on schemes and ball movement to force defenses off balance. As unlikely as it has become in today’s one-on-one heavy NBA game, the Spurs almost never take a bad shot.
Greg Popovich is probably the best active coach in professional sports. His preparation is unparalleled and his consistency is borderline unbelievable. The Spurs have now gone to the playoffs 17 years in a row, winning five championships over that period. As long as Parker is setting up the offense and Tim Duncan is hovering around the rim, the Spurs will likely remain the big fish in the pre-season power rankings for years to come.
With Popovich having mastered both maximizing production from his young players and balancing the minutes and workload of his veterans, it’s very possible that LeBron will meet the Spurs in the Finals for a third straight time.
The biggest hurdle for the Cavs in the Eastern Conference may be the Chicago Bulls. The best defensive team of last year will get back their former MVP Derrick Rose, who has been putting in work overseas in FIBA. Chicago has also added veteran big-man Pau Gasol via free agency.
The thing that makes Chicago such a tough matchup for the Cavs is their ability to defend. Joakim Noah is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. The frontcourt of Noah, Gasol and Taj Gibson will be a tough matchup for any team.
The success of the Bulls obviously depends on the health of Rose. His ability to ferociously attack the basket with driving layups and dunks is his best characteristic, and an attribute the Bulls offense sorely missed last season. If he can do that consistently in the upcoming season then the Bulls will be extremely formidable.
Oklahoma City Thunder
In 2012, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder lost to LeBron and the Heat in five games during the NBA Finals. Since that year OKC has won 60 (2012) and 59 (2013) games, being bounced from the playoffs in the Conference Semifinals by the Memphis Grizzlies and the Western Conference Finals last season by the Spurs.
With Kobe Bryant’s injuries and Carmelo Anthony’s inability to remain relevant in the postseason, the only true rival left for King James may be Kevin Durant. The reigning MVP averaged 32 points per game last year and led the league. The sharp-shooting veteran, who averaged a career high 5.5 assists per game a year ago, is headed into his eighth season as the face of the Thunder franchise.
If Cleveland has a ‘Big 3’, then the Thunder have a ‘Dynamic Duo’. The combination of Durant and Westbrook is lethal. The two All-Stars have averaged more than half their team’s points in the six years they’ve played together. But the biggest question for the Thunder is whether or not Durant and Westbrook can work cohesively enough to effectively close out games. In the playoffs, down the stretch especially, the Thunder play too much one-on-one basketball. Great teams, like the Spurs, react accordingly and allow the two stars to force up contested shots against a limited shot clock.
If Durant and Westbrook can fix their fourth quarter issues then the Thunder can be unstoppable.
With all the additions the Cavs have made over these past few months it’s no wonder why Vegas has picked them to win it all. Whether or not they can actually do it remains to be seen.