The calendar now reads October, which means you have made it through another summer devoid of meaningful basketball. Now NBA training camps are underway and a full slate of preseason games are on the horizon.
But a lot has changed around the association since the Golden State Warriors hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy in June, setting the stage for what should be a compelling 2015-16 campaign. A number of teams have changed coaches or reloaded their rosters in an effort to dethrone the reigning champs, and we’ve identified four squads to keep your eyes on this season.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Despite Russell Westbrook’s best effort, Oklahoma City narrowly missed the playoffs last season after failing to overcome a rash of injuries to key players – most notably Kevin Durant (foot) and Serge Ibaka (knee). But an offseason of rest and recuperation has done the team well, and they are ready to re-assume their status as perennial championship contenders.
Leading the way will be newly hired head coach Billy Donovan, who brings championship pedigree from the University of Florida and a new offensive scheme that replaces an attack that had become far too predictable. Already, players have expressed that there is more room to operate in the new system, which means trouble for defenses tasked with slowing down Westbrook’s rocket-propelled drives to the rim as shooters spot up for open jumpers.
But Durant’s impending free agency will loom over the franchise this season, adding even more urgency to the team’s title aspirations. And when Durant and Westbrook are on a mission, incredible things will happen on the court to the benefit of NBA fans.
Miami sports one of the glitziest rosters in the league on paper, as a number of familiar names litter the depth chart at every position. What remains to be seen, however, is how all the pieces will fit together, making it very difficult to predict this team’s ceiling.
The starting lineup of Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside looks formidable, but head coach Erik Spoelstra must find a happy medium to maximize the strengths of the group. Dragic is at his best in transition when he can get to the rim and use his exceptional finishing ability, while the rest of the starters would prefer a more deliberate, half-court game at this point in their careers.
Fortunately, Spoelstra has a reloaded bench that offers versatility should he ever want to mix things up during the course of the game. Mario Chalmers, Gerald Green and rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson provide the perimeter athleticism suited for an uptempo game, while the playmaking of Josh McRoberts and scoring of Amar’e Stoudemire could prove useful if the action bogs down.
San Antonio Spurs
San Antonio has been the NBA’s model organization over the last 15 years, finding hidden gems in the draft and free agency and molding them to complement their franchise cornerstone Tim Duncan. But this offseason, they opted to make a splash in free agency by acquiring LaMarcus Aldridge.
Aldridge was undoubtedly the prized catch of the offseason, but there are some legitimate questions about his fit in the San Antonio’s equal opportunity offense. The nine-year veteran has made his name by burying midrange jumpers off isolation plays, which directly contrasts the Spurs’ free-flowing system predicated on ball movement. That being said, Aldridge is skilled enough to adjust his game and head coach Gregg Popovich will put him in positions on the floor to thrive.
Still, like every other season, one must wonder if this is finally the year San Antonio’s famed trio of Duncan (39 years old), Manu Ginobli (38 years old) and Tony Parker (33 years old) experience a significant decline in production. Even if it is, the organization has created a bridge from one era to the next with the acquisition of Aldridge and continued growth of Kawhi Leonard, ensuring that the Spurs continue to haunt Western Conference teams in the future.
Milwaukee was a pleasant surprise last season under Jason Kidd, finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference with a 41-41 record (plus-26 win differential from 2013-14). Most teams with such a young core are often left languishing in NBA obscurity, but the Bucks had the opportunity to develop while playing meaningful games into May.
And to build on that success, the team signed Greg Monroe to provide some low-post scoring punch for a team that occasionally went through prolonged scoring droughts. Jabari Parker, the second overall pick of the 2014 draft, also returns from his season-ending injury to join a versatile and long starting lineup of Michael Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Monroe.
Milwaukee has a truly unique team that will offer fans and casual observers a different style of play to enjoy.
You have our list of teams to watch, but we want to hear from you. Let us know the four teams you will be paying extra attention to this season in the comment section.
Photo: Associated Press