Sunday 18 March 2018 / 07:03 PM


Golden State will open the NBA season as unprecedentedly hot favourites, but who makes up the group chasing them?

We’ll start with their most obvious, the other finalists from last season.

It’s easy to assume Cleveland as the second-best team in the league, being a year removed from genuinely owning that title and considering their strong standing in the relatively weaker conference. But a fascinating — and a times disconcerting — offseason finds them in a very different position to the one they were in at the end of the last campaign.

Plenty of criticism, much of it justified, has been aimed at their front office for lack of foresight over the past 24 months. They’ve pivoted, but the direction is somewhat indecisive on their behalf: from the hiring of Tyronne Lue, an offensively-inclined coach, to the players they’ve signed and the style they’ve played. They hit levels of historic offensive production previously unseen in the finals — and still lost games. Their defence was the prevailing issue through most of the regular season and it stood between them and the final frontier.

In that context, their moves have been hit or miss. As we detailed, Jae Crowder is an important addition and has settled in nicely. Aside from his own abilities, he allows LeBron to move back to the ‘free safety’ roaming role he is so dominant in. On the flipside, both Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose have struggled defensively in the past few seasons, and will now start in the back court together, changing Crowder’s addition from a luxury to a necessity.

Bringing Kevin Love — the unfortunate scapegoat for just about everything — to the starting lineup is the most polarising change. It won’t do anything for their defence, and is likely to completely marginalise switching specialist Tristan Thompson, but it could help their offence explode — lineups with Love at center registered an 121 offensive rating; for perspective, the league-topping Warriors averaged 113.

Great offence, questionable defence, and we’re back to square one.

The key is getting into better habits during the season. They don’t have to have the throttle on 100, but build the patterns, develop a defensive philosophy and get used to defending important possessions. It feels like unnecessary advice, but use the season to practice. The ‘flick the switch’ method doesn’t work, as evidenced in finals. The Cavaliers rested on their laurels even though Golden State added Kevin-freaking-Durant, so at the very least Cleveland have made an effort to adapt and acknowledge the new circumstance, and better late than never, right?!

Whether they’ve taken it in right direction will decide whether they go to their fourth straight finals, and possibly what jersey LeBron wears at this time in 2018. Suffice to say, plenty rides on their season; despite prolonged success, the pressure is on to keep succeeding.

OKC’s and Houston’s contention chances won’t rely on how fast their newly aligned stars mesh — CP3 and Harden, and Russ, Melo and PG respectively — but how they develop over the course of the season, maintain their chemistry and extract their new teammates’ strengths. There will be the inevitable media blowout if either of these teams don’t storm out of the gate, but don’t buy into it —this is a marathon, not a sprint. If either are a chance at overcoming Golden State, they need to play the long game.

For Houston, that should be keyed in on two things — trying to maintain their video game-like variability through their wild three-point barrages whilst finding a more stable process to generate such shots, and maybe even more importantly, lineup flexibility. Their roster is deep, the additions of Tucker and Mbah a Moute securing the wing rotation and opening up a range of options, adding both lineup versatility and adding a significant defensive presence that was lacking deep into their bench last season.

If the Rockets can get the framework of their rotation down early, Paul’s integration will be far smoother, and then it’s simply a matter of reps for him and Harden working together in late-game situations. Harden was insane last year, but it became blatantly clear that the one-man, bowling-ball attack was easier to defend in the playoffs. Now he has a legitimate running mate, and both his team and his own personal game should benefit.

The story is the same for Oklahoma City, who weren’t as good (or deep) as Houston, but suffered the same fate of being too predictable and easily guarded with no alternative options. Well, the options have arrived, but unlike Houston, the Thunder need to focus in on finding what lineups work best for their new talent.

They have more questions that need to be answered: fitting Melo and PG into the Russ-centric offence, how they manage Andre Roberson’s shooting and what role Pat Patterson plays. The Carmelo trade, whilst brilliantly opportunistic, did come at the expense of some depth. It’s pretty tough to forecast their season, but it’s fair to say they have the largest gap between their floor and ceiling.

The Celtics are unlike the other teams gunning for the unoccupied second spot — whilst everyone else’s case is measured in comparison to the empire in the Bay, the Celtics’ merits for contention lies completely in relation to the Cavaliers. The conferences couldn’t be further apart, possibly the biggest gap ever; whilst the West is a bloodbath, the East is undeniably a two-team conference.

When we’re assessing them in comparison to Cleveland, seedings are irrelevant. Cleveland have shown repeatedly that they aren’t concerned with home-court advantage, prioritising rest during the slog of the schedule (although that may alter slightly with both teams’ changes). This is, in part, what led to the Celtics claiming the number one seed last year.

That said, if Brad Stevens can pull together this team from day one, there’s a chance they’re already better than their rivals. Kyrie is un-guardable (and the Cavs have awful point guard defenders), and the combination of Hayward and Jaylen Brown (development pending), to throw on LeBron makes for an intriguing matchup.

With such a wide range of versatile options to carve out different lineups, Boston are built to adapt to any matchup. Lucky for us, they open their season against Cleveland, so we’ll see immediately where they’re at. They might not be ready to challenge the Warriors, or be better than the other three West contenders, but their path to the Finals is clearer, and at that stage – as once screamed by a champion Celtic – anything is possible.

And that leaves the dark horse.

It seems almost simplistic, and counter to everything we’ve ever known about the Spurs, to boil their chances for title contention down to a single player. But to be frank, their title hopes really do circle one specific thought: just how great can Kawhi Leonard be?

The offensive inclination of the voting panel held him out of genuinely entering the MVP discussion last season, but there is definitely a case to be made that he was the single best individual in the NBA last season, both ends of the floor considered.

And whilst leaning on an individual contributor seems fundamentally counter-intuitive for the Spurs, it may be the only choice. The decline of LaMarcus Aldridge leaves them short on firepower, and their tendency to zig whilst everyone zags finds them playing a vastly different style of ball to their fellow contenders. To pull it all together, they need Kawhi to be at his devastating best.

Considering years of them being written off before a ball is bounced, that puts them exactly where they are comfortable yet again. We should know better than to count out the most consistent organisation in the sports and the best coach in the league.

You’ll be sold the narrative of the Warriors’ dominance all year, and let’s be clear, they are the undoubted heavy favourites, but parity in the NBA is an illusion. They are an all-time great team and deserve the attention, but right at their heels is a group of very competent teams primed to launch if an opportunity presents itself. Don’t get drowned in the sea of voices screaming about an uncompetitive season — just because there’s a leader, doesn’t mean there isn’t a race.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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