Last season, Golden State obliterated the rest of the league. Golden State won the number one seed in the West without much competition, and they destroyed teams in the playoffs with a 16-1 post season record.
That was last season.
This season gives birth to multiple revamped rosters. From the East, Cleveland, Boston, and Washington all took strides to improve, and Houston, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City are all reconstructed in the West.
Cleveland is Cleveland. LeBron has made the Warriors and many other teams pay for overlooking him in the past. Now he has some new players on his team. Isaiah Thomas may have suffered a serious injury, but the all-star still finished 2nd in the NBA in scoring with 28.9 points per game, and he led Boston over Cleveland in the regular season for the one seed with 12.5 win shares.
The Cavaliers also got former league MVP Derrick Rose, who in a “washed up” season, still put up 18 points per game on 47.1% shooting, Jae Crowder, a three-and-D maestro who was one of the East’s best small forwards last season, and a few other pieces. Dwyane Wade is the latest player to join Cleveland, and even at age 35, Wade still put up 18.3 points per game on 43% shooting.
No team before the Celtics has earned the one seed in a conference, made it to the Conference Finals, yet traded for four new starters. Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, and Amir Johnson are all gone. Joining Al Horford are Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Morris. Irving, Hayward, and Horford are still as good as they were when selected for all-star appearances, Brown has all-star potential, and Morris is one of best complimentary pieces in the league.
Even with a new roster, this team still has one of the best benches in the league. Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum, Aron Baynes, and Guerschon Yabusele possess a lot of young talent. Expect Boston to be a serious contender with another Conference Finals appearance.
Washington can never be counted out, however. John Wall is coming off a career season in which he averaged 23.1 points, 10.7 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game. No player in recorded NBA history has recorded a stat-line with that many of each statistic. Bradley Beal also chipped in 23.1 points per game of his own on 48.2% from the field and 40.4% from three. In the front court, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, and Marcin Gortat each chipped in 9.4, 4.1, and 6.8 win shares a piece as well. The whole team went 49-33, and 42-20 after a slow 7-13 start.
The starting line-up played more minutes together than any other unit in the league, and they were the 3rd best five-man line-up in the league behind Golden State and Los Angeles’ starting five. It was the bench that blew up in Washington’s face. Even with mid-season acquisitions Bojan Bogdanovic and Brandon Jennings, Washington’s bench was seriously over-matched even in regular season play. Come playoff time, Boston’s bench ran circles around the Wizards’ 8th worst bench in the league in the regular season, and 3rd worst bench in the playoffs (-14.9 points/100 possessions.)
The bench is reloaded, however, with talent upgrades at each position. Ian Mahinmi is healthy and still a great interior defender. Jodie Meeks is healthy as well, and coming off a season in which he put up 9.1 points per game on 40.9% from three on a space deprived Magic team. Kelly Oubre Jr. is a year more developed after being taken in the 2015 lottery. Mike Scott was one of the best players off Atlanta’s bench during the Budenholzer era, and is only one season removed from shooting 39.2% from three, and Tim Frazier is one of the best back-up distributors in the league. With a real bench, Washington is a very real threat.
In the Western Conference, Houston, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City all revamped their rosters to feature more versatile perimeter players to contend with the Warriors.
The league’s best back court now resides in Texas – Houston, that is. Chris Paul and James Harden are teammates under Mike D’Antoni. The star back court averaged 47.2 points, 20.4 assists, 13.1 rebounds, and 3.5 steals between them last season as they led their teams to top five conference finishes. The rest of the Rockets team is stacked with spacers, rim runners and protectors, and talent.
Clint Capela, Nene Hilario, and Tarik Black lead a deep center rotation, and Ryan Anderson, Luc Mbah a Moute, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, and Eric Gordon form a solid supporting cast to the star back court. This team has depth and versatility in the front court and an objectively better back court to be able to compete against Golden State.
San Antonio gets interesting. If one didn’t watch the Western Conference Finals last season, then they could very easily misunderstand the Warriors 4-0 series victory as a common sweep. In actuality, Kawhi Leonard led a Spurs onslaught before suffering a leg injury delivered by Zaza Pachulia. Without Leonard and without Tony Parker, the Spurs competed with a rookie Dejounte Murray at point guard, and Jonathan Simmons, a raw defensive slasher starting at the wing.
Leonard is back now. Parker will be back soon. The Spurs brought back Gasol, Patty Mills, and Manu Ginobili, and they added Joffrey Lauvergne, Derrick White, and most importantly Rudy Gay. Lauvergne and White add some youth to this veteran team, and Gay adds perimeter versatility and talent. Rudy Gay averaged 18.7 points, and 6.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 0.9 blocks per game, and is a lot quicker than Aldridge as a potential stretch four option. He also shot 37.2% from three last year. Gay adds a dimension of quickness to this otherwise slow half-court team.
Oklahoma City was a team that lived and died with Russell Westbrook last season. This is not last season. The Thunder, in a showing of management mastery, converted Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and a 2nd round pick for all-stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Anthony, George, and Westbrook are all guys who are expected to go off for at least 20-25 points every game no matter what. There is as much star power on this team as any in the NBA.
Pairing the big three with great starters like Steven Adams and Andre Roberson and role players like Patrick Patterson, Jerami Grant, and Raymond Felton. The bench beyond those players is questionable at best; D-League probables Dakari Johnson and Terrence Ferguson are other players that figure to play minutes this season, and Alex Abrines didn’t show too much after his awaited arrival last season.
All in all, Golden State cannot assume its return to greatness this season. They should, by all means, be the favorites to win again, but the NBA has come back with some new teams they need to get through.