Observer NBA writer Rick Bonnell takes a shot at how 10 NBA story lines might play out this season:
Do the Golden State Warriors repeat as champions?
I’m going to say their chances are a bit less than 50-50. They avoided having to play the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs in last spring’s playoffs and I don’t see that happening again. Now they are dealing with coach Steve Kerr’s back ailment. They lost arguably the NBA’s top assistant, Shelby’s Alvin Gentry, who is now coaching the New Orleans Pelicans.
Then who are the favorites?
The Cleveland Cavaliers. They had some tough luck injury-wise last spring, yet still reached the Finals. They kept their core together by re-signing forwards Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. They play in the Eastern Conference, far less daunting than the West. And of course they have a once-in-a-generation talent in LeBron James.
But what about the Spurs?
That organization has done an amazing job of holding open its championship window once again. LaMarcus Aldridge and David West will take some burden off 39-year-old Tim Duncan. The Spurs’ chances might come down to how Tony Parker performs in a Western Conference that includes point guards Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Mike Conley.
Who challenges the Cavs in the East?
The Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat, for sure, assuming neither team is decimated by injuries the way the Heat was last season. That Joakim Noah is open to coming off the bench says plenty about his priorities and the Bulls’ depth. I think the other team with home court in the first round is a bake-off between the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards.
Your team on the rise in the West?
I’ll say the Minnesota Timberwolves because that team is so loaded with young talent, plus a veteran presence in Kevin Garnett. But also watch out for the Utah Jazz, a team that played dramatically better the second half of last season; former Duke point guard Quin Snyder did a terrific job in Salt Lake City in his debut as an NBA head coach.
And your team on the rise in the East?
I don’t know if it will be reflected in their record right away, but I think the Orlando Magic has drafted very well the past few springs. If forward Aaron Gordon plays anything like he did in summer league, he’ll be a candidate for NBA Most Improved Player. And Scott Skiles is an excellent coach.
Any issue that could percolate into a problem?
It’s been obvious from his comments this preseason that Paul George has misgivings about the Indiana Pacers using him as a power forward, rather than a small forward. I understand Frank Vogel’s reasoning – the league is shifting toward less bulky, more skilled power forwards – but if George doesn’t buy in, it could be a mess.
Is this Kobe Bryant’s last season?
Assuming he stays healthy, I bet he’s back for the 2016-17 season. Having said that I certainly wouldn’t take it for granted he’s with the Los Angeles Lakers. Much as that might sound like heresy, recall that Michael Jordan and Karl Malone didn’t finish their careers with the teams that drafted them.
Any significant relocations?
Point guard Deron Williams accepted a buyout from the Brooklyn Nets in order to sign with his hometown Dallas Mavericks. Williams is a strong-willed guy with a big ego. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle is pretty willful, too, and didn’t put up with Rajon Rondo’s act last season. So I’ll be curious how these two co-exist.
How will the Hornets do without Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?
That was a major hit when Kidd-Gilchrist had shoulder surgery that likely ends his season. But the re-made roster (seven new players under guaranteed contract) meshed more quickly in training camp than I anticipated. Nic Batum and Jeremy Lin make this a much more functional offense than the past two seasons. If they make the playoffs, it will be just barely, but they are in the discussion.